Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matt 2:1-12
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH
“I am going to bring them… and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…” (Isaiah 31:8)
Some of the early mapmakers were Europeans who traveled the high seas and mapped out the world as they discovered and explored new lands. Naturally, they saw the world from their own point of view, and they saw their homelands as the center. Most world maps today still show Europe in the top center, and all else spreads out from there: North America to the left; Russia and the Far East to the right. South America and Africa and Australia are down in the lower half of the map. The North Pole is at the top and the South Pole is at the bottom.
Once, however, I saw a map of the world that had been printed in Australia. I could tell where the oceans were because they were blue and I could tell where the landmasses were because they were brown and green, but none of the shapes made sense to me, at least at first. At the top of the map were two large continents with little pointy ends going up, and a very large island in the center. There was a large landmass on the lower right and a smaller one on the lower left.
Eventually, I realized that those teardrop-shaped continents, at the top of the map, were South America and Africa, and the large island in between them was Australia – now placed top and center! The large landmass at the bottom was Asia, the smaller one was North America. From an Australian point of view, the “Near East” was China and Japan. The “Far East” was Iraq and Syria.
In this Australian worldview, South was up, so the whole world map was, from a traditional European perspective, upside down. Seeing the world this way for the first time made me realize that, of course, in outer space there is no “up” or “down”. Placing North at the top was an arbitrary choice, made by early mapmakers, as they looked at the world from a Eurocentric point of view.
In the ancient world, there was a clear sense of who was “up” and who was “down” from a social perspective. There were plenty of appropriately distinguished candidates who might have been the first to welcome the newborn Jesus: the High Priest, members of the Sanhedrin who were the elite clergy, the Pharisees and scribes, and the wealthy upper classes. Yet the Gospels give us an upside down story. The Gospel of Luke tells us that shepherds, who were among the lowest of the social classes, were the ones who heard the message of the angels and who were the first to visit the newborn child. The Gospel of Matthew tells us today’s story, of the Magi, who were astrologers and who followed a brilliant star, which led them to Judea.
The Magi were exotic, foreign Gentiles, about as far away from Jewish as anyone could be, and yet they came with specific symbolic gifts to honor Jesus: gold for his kingship, frankincense for his priesthood, and myrrh for his sacrifice in death. Wednesday this coming week, will be the feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the journey of the Magi to visit the Christ child and which also is a celebration of thanksgiving that the salvation of Christ is offered to all peoples.
A few years ago I stayed for a week in Qatar, which is a Middle Eastern country and a peninsula attached to Saudi Arabia and which stretches into the Persian Gulf. The Anglican parish there has been named the Church of the Epiphany. I spent my time visiting with the rector, meeting parishioners, and assisting at services. They didn’t have a dedicated church building, but instead worshipped in a high school gym. They had a processional cross, torches, altar, chalice and paten, vestments, and everything they needed stowed neatly away, and it took only a short while to turn the basketball court into a holy sanctuary. They were not able to advertise church services publicly, since Qatar is a conservative Muslim country, but by word of mouth many Christian expatriates living and working in Qatar find their way to this thriving community.
It was by far the most diverse worship experience I’ve ever had. I met a man who was from Ghana, and who knew my Ghanaian sister Rosina. I met families from India and South America. I met a group of Philippinos who performed as an impromptu choir. The people in this congregation were literally from all over the world.
A few years earlier the Archbishop of Canterbury had visited this church. While he was there, he asked one of the men in the congregation what it meant to him to be a member and to worship there. This man was a day laborer. The man answered, “When I come to worship here I might be sitting next to the British Ambassador, and here everyone is the same.”
There is a hymn which begins with the words, “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no North or South….” Respectfully, I’d like to suggest a slight adjustment to these words. Christians are after all from East, West, North, South, and we do have differences. We can honor these differences and our differences don’t disappear in Christ. In my humble opinion, I think these words might say: “In Christ there is no up or down”.
The light of Christ has come and is coming into the world as a sign of hope for all people, especially those who suffer and those who are seen as “down” by the standards of the world. Throughout the Gospel stories, Jesus is always most attentive to those who were thought to be sinners, outsiders, insignificant, unworthy, and even those outside of the Jewish tradition. He shared our humanity fully, not shunning anyone and being ultimately shunned and dishonored himself, and yet still he welcomed, accepted, taught and healed all those who believed in him. By receiving all people with compassion, he truly did restore their full humanity and dignity.
The Magi were astrologers who studied the stars, and who saw the brightness of one special star as a sign of the light that was coming into the world. On the feast of the Epiphany, we remember their long, arduous journey following the star. This is a star still shining for us today, leading us also to Bethlehem. May this light shine in our hearts and in our lives, as a true sign of the gift of divine life which is offered to all people and which we share in Christ.