The Feast of the Epiphany
(Matthew 2: 1-12)
There is a language barrier in Christianity that I find myself pondering at this time of year. To start from the obvious, common Christian discourse and in much of the teaching heard in the churches the language is of an earlier cosmology. It is equally obvious that the language encasing that ancient cosmology simply does not work for people who are constantly exposed to scientific evidence of a universe more vast than most of us can imagine.
In the cosmology of the New Testament world, and for a millennium and a half beyond, it was comparatively easy to believe in a God up in Heaven, who was not just the Governor and Creator of all but who also kept an eye on everything going on on the planet. In other words, a personal God whom the people believed knew the secrets of their hearts, “to whom all hearts are open”, and knew all their “sins, negligences and ignorances”.
In the universe we inhabit it is much, much harder to believe in such a personal God. It really is. The gap between the archaic images and language and our world view is too wide and on the whole the church does not do much to bridge it. Making the language of the liturgy simpler and more ‘every day’ isn’t the answer when the sermon, say at Christmas, is about choirs of angels appearing to shepherds and wise men following a star, as though these are historic truths. Anyone with an ounce of theological training, or a dollop of common sense, suspects these stories are constructs for teaching purposes. And if they were ever proved to be true in our sense of the word it doesn’t invalidate the idea that using them as teaching models adapted to this century is still a better idea.
The idea of ‘truth’ in the ancient world was more fulsome than ours is today. There were, to the ancients, different kinds of truth, at least five, and they were all valid in their spheres. Clearly, ‘mythical truth’ is a different kind of creature to the ‘what actually happened’ kind of truth which is the only one contemporary thinking seems to value. To construct a story for teaching purposes, a story whose essence is eternal truth, was not ‘cheating’, it was a perfectly valid model to get the important message across, because the message was the enduring truth. Like the parables of Jesus, e.g. there never was, and didn’t have to be, an actual, real, live Samaritan who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and had an adventure, which illustrated the eternal point that being loving, kind, generous and ignoring racial boundaries is the most rewarding way to live. We accept this method of teaching but when it comes to the shepherds et al. we seem to take a different approach, granting them an historical validity the Samaritan man never had (or needed).
We all know this kind of truth in our experience but still the preaching, especially at this time of year, persists along the traditional lines. It is taken as read that shepherds, a sky filled with angels, a special star, and the wise men are all undeniable historical facts. The vast difference in 1st century cosmology is not mentioned and no interpretation is given for the use of these stories in the evangelical pursuits of their authors. Thus, by people generally, they are relegated to the realm of fairy stories and like fairy stories, don’t get told much even to children these days. So it is that the opportunity for preaching the message of the stories is hugely diminished and only the people who know them off by heart are around to hear them. How interesting and refreshing it would be to have some intellectual input and to have the stories presented as teaching models for our own time in our own language! The faith might recover some vitality!
The story of wise men following a star is a good example. The magi were the scientists of their day, and it is in the nature of scientists to ask big questions about life. They looked to the stars for answers; we might do it differently, with more sophisticated equipment but the fascination with the stars in relation to Planet Earth is a perennial and is so much on the agenda now. There are great opportunities here for the message. The magi, like us, were seeking the meaning of life. One eternal truth in the story is something about finding that the essential meaning of life ultimately lies in the divinity of a seemingly ordinary human birth. As T. S. Eliot said so beautifully:
No story of this kind has one single, solitary message, the images revolve around and each time one looks one finds a new aspect of the truth. There are various messages contained in the ‘true story’ of the wise men visiting the Holy Family; one could have a great time with the Herod episode for example, or the significance of taking notice of our dreams, but none of them has to be dependent on the story being historically true.
Finally, whatever way the story is accented, maybe the really important point is in the teaching that in order to belong to the Christian community one does not have to give intellectual assent to a body of stories that were not ever intended to measure up to a 21st century criterion of truth.
I realise that this kind of thinking can be very threatening because it raises the question of “Well, if what you say is true, what of the Bible can we believe as true in the common usage of the term?” That is a really big question but the one that lies behind it is even more interesting, “On what does faith rest, in a collection of written words or in one’s lived experience and personal integrity?”
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