On Bended Knee
The story of the magi is a story for our time. In the midst of the incredible run of the latest Star Wars movie–”The Force Awakens”–already having grossed a billion dollars–how perfect is this story of wise men who study the stars! It lifts our eyes to the heavens, beyond our narrow, often petty, concerns, and draws us out to larger horizons, larger concerns, larger dreams and intentions as our tiny planet begins yet another journey around its sun.
The great 20th c. scholar of myth Joseph Campbell said that Star Wars–the original 3 movies anyway, which was all he had seen–had the potential to become the truth-speaking myth for new generations, with its battle of forces of good and evil, its lessons about getting in touch with the Force and trusting it, characters who themselves are complex and conflicted, battling to let the good or evil impulses within them rule their actions and decisions. It is a story that includes not only all races, but all beings, not only on our one small planet, but throughout the galaxies. After a diversion into the 3 movies that were supposed to tell the beginning of the saga–unsuccessfully as far as I can tell–this latest episode continues to construct the myth (or truth-telling story) in meaningful ways. Despite itself, the movie industry does have the ability to teach and tell important stories in ways that are far beyond the church’s abilities, and so may take up the obligation to teach new generations profound lessons that set the imagination on fire.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
Over the centuries these “wise men,” or magi, or star-gazers, or astrologers, have been described as “kings,” probably from the psalm that talks about kings from the east bringing tribute to “the king of the Jews,” including gold, and another psalm which describes gifts of camels and frankincense. They have been given names, described as being of different races and ages, legends and poems written about them by people like T.S. Eliot and O’Henry. They capture our imagination with their exoticism–what is a magus anyway? What would make them set out on such a journey–”a long, hard time we had of it,” as T.S. Eliot’s poem says–traveling into the night, and by night, which is when they could see the star most clearly, across unforgiving deserts and dangerous places, way beyond their comfort zones, and right up to the doorstep of a King with an unsavory reputation? And then to trust their instincts and a message revealed to them in a dream to disobey that king and go home by another way? What Global Positioning System guided them? What was their “true north”?
These are men who would fit into a Star Wars movie–adventurers with eyes lifted to the
skies, seekers of truth, seekers of that which was worthy of their homage, their bended knees, as it were, not out of fear, but out of reverence and respect, of hope for the future.
What brings you to your knees–proverbial or literal–not out of frustration or discourage-ment or fear, but out of reverence and awe and respect? We Americans gave up bowing to kings and we Protestants to Popes or even altars, but is there anything or anyone that we would give our “homage” to, that we would recognize as having a power and authority–and not just celebrity or domineering– greater than ourselves? What might the magi have to teach us?
For one thing, we might learn the wisdom of studying nature. While the magi looked to the heavens, we would do well to begin with the earth beneath our feet, the land and seas and waters around us, our atmosphere, and read the signs they have to tell us–signs of species going extinct, of ocean temperatures rising, of glaciers and ice caps melting, of deserts spreading, of more severe weather systems. Will we keep our knees locked straight and refuse to bow to the wisdom and inherent laws of nature?
And star-gazing–galaxy-gazing–deep space gazing can teach us lessons as well, let alone actually exploring space with our bodies or, for the time being, with our telescopes and probes and satellites. Joseph Campbell, in his series of interviews with journalist Bill Moyers said,
When you go out into space, what you’re carrying is your body, and if that hasn’t been transformed, space won’t transform you. But thinking about space may help you to realize something. There’s a two-page spread in a world atlas which shows our galaxy within many galaxies, and within our galaxy the solar system. And here you get a sense of the magnitude of this space that we’re now finding out about. What those pages opened to me was the vision of a universe of unimaginable magnitude and inconceivable violence. Billions upon billions of roaring thermonuclear furnaces scattering from each other. Each thermonuclear furnace a star, and our sun among them. Many of them actually blowing themselves to pieces, littering the outermost reaches of space with dust and gas out of which new stars with circling planets are being born right now. And then from still more remote distances beyond all these there come murmurs, microwaves that are echoes of the greatest cataclysmic explosion of all, namely the big bang of creation, which, according to some reckonings, may have occurred some eighteen billion years ago.
That’s where we are, kiddo, and to realize that, you realize how really important you are, you know–one little microbit in that great magnitude. And then must come the experience that you and that are in some sense one, and you partake of all of that.
[Moyers:] And it begins here.
[Campbell:] It begins here.
[The Power of Myth, p. 183]
And that conversation took place in the 1980’s, before we even had the mind-blowing, hauntingly beautiful pictures sent back by the Hubble telescope.
The magi stopped first at Herod’s palace, but knew right away that this was not the object of their search. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked. But when they proceeded to Bethlehem, “when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Although later art depicts Jesus and Mary with haloes around their heads, my guess is the signs weren’t quite so obvious. A certain radiance, perhaps, an openness, an innocence, maybe even a knowing, but otherwise a pretty normal, active toddler and his probably weary mother. (What mother of a 2-year-old isn’t weary?) And not only that, this was a peasant family, in very modest surroundings, racially different from the travelers (also weary) from the East, from what is today Iran or Iraq. “They knelt down and paid him homage.”
What if this is not just about bending the knee to Jesus, but to the presence of the Divine, the sacred, in every child, even the poorest of the poor, maybe especially so, in God’s great reversal made evident in the life of Jesus ? Can this story remind us of our sacred duty and obligation to honor and care for the children among us, especially the children of the poor? Might it call us to speak out against the slaughter of innocents like Tamir Rice, playing in the park with a toy gun and not even getting a chance to show the police that it was a toy?
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away…long ago in Galilee, not quite so far away… star-gazers, brave travelers, Truth-seekers came together to honor and become part of this universe-creating Force. These stories come together in our day in a new and unique way. It is up to us to learn the lessons they have to teach us. Physicist and cosmologist Brian Swimme describes the challenge this way–
Our ancestry stretches back through the life-forms and into the stars, back to the beginnings of the primeval fireball. This universe is a single, multiform, energetic unfolding of matter, mind, intelligence and life. All of this is new. None of the great figures of human history were aware of this. Not Plato, not Aristotle, or the Hebrew prophets, [or Jesus?], or Confucius, or Leibniz, or Newton, or any other world-maker. We are the first generation to live with an empirical view of the origin of the universe. We are the first humans to look into the night sky and see the birth of stars, the birth of galaxies, the birth of the cosmos as a whole. Our future as a species will be forged within this new story of the world. [The Universe Is a Green Dragon]
We are star-dust, made of the same elements as the stars, the star that drew the magi to Bethlehem. We are one with them, and one with each other. We are one loaf, one cup, and we are invited to eat and drink with the One who started it all and came to live among us, full of grace and truth. Let us keep the feast.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark