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Did you ever think about what happened to the Wise Men when they went back home? Did they live happily ever after? Were their lives changed?
After the shimmering splendor of the star's light and the wonder and mystery of having now, at last, peered into the center of their hearts' desire ... after all that, did it make a difference back home on the mundane Monday morning of taking out the garbage, and changing the diapers, and balancing the checkbook, and paying the bills, and attending the meetings, and driving the carpools, and figuring out the taxes, and calling on the clients, and getting their teeth filled, and planning the birthday party, and all the thousand and one things that it takes to live?
After all, the Wise Men had followed a star, and were exceedingly joyful in their journey's end. But was it really their journey's end, since it was necessary for them to return to their own country? They did not remain in the "royal beauty bright" of the star, but being warned in a dream of Herod's deadly intentions, they returned to their homes by another way. But what was life like for them afterwards? After the star, in the cold light of day, did it all really matter?
After the anticipation and the celebration and the wonder of the holy night with the candles flickering and the smell of cedar and the songs of angels, does the spirit of Christmas burn away like the morning fog? When it's time to drag out the tree and to straighten up the house and to get back to school and return to work, are we not like the Wise Men going back home to their own country?
In his poem "For the Time Being," W. H. Auden describes this post-Christmas mood "Well, so that is that ... we've gotten through Christmas once again, perhaps in spite of ourselves..." but it's over now.
"Once again as in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility. So, it's back to the old world we left behind for just a bit on Christmas Eve, and perhaps that makes us weary. And yet the Vision will not entirely go away. We almost wish it would." Auden concludes, "To those who have seen the child, however dimly, however incredulously, the time being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all."
What Auden describes is more subtle ... more profound than what is popularly referred to as the after Christmas blues. Like the Wise Men, for those who have seen the star, it will not easily fade away. The sense of wonder, the capacity to dream, the joy, the joy of that holy night continues to catch our imagination. The sense of wonder, the capacity to dream, the joy which we knew in our hearts as we went to Bethlehem to see what had come to pass, won't easily go away. We still long to know it right here in the midst of the old routines, right here where we are and always have been ... in a world that Christmas doesn't seem to have changed very much.
Could it be that our world is really Herod's world ... the Roman world ... rather than the mysterious eastern world of the Wise Men? Are we not more children of Herod than descendants of those starry-eyed star gazers? Do we not seek order, decency, efficiency, control, rather than the unclear, vague, formless mystical naiveté of the Wise Men?
I believe we live today in a world from which almost all of the wonder has been drained away. We tend to see religion as only a system of "rights and wrongs," or as a pattern of engaging in worship. We tend to have insulated and isolated ourselves from wonder ... from imagination ... from mystery ... because it is unmanageable, impractical, and finally useless.
But I believe it is precisely that wonder for which human hunger cries out today. In the midst of our technological and mechanical and scientific world, I find my soul unsatisfied and my heart yearning for something more. Don't you? I experience it all around me. Some people flee to Eastern gurus or modern, new age cults. There are evidences of occult influences in surprising places, like Nancy Reagan's astrology. Fantasy literature and movies have become a major component of our entertainment. We hunger and we long for mystery. We wish and yearn for that which is greater than ourselves, for that which outreaches our human grasp, for affiliation with something that transcends the horrors which technology has given us under the false promise of salvation. We experience the moral poverty of almost all political and social and economic systems. We watch powerless as international violence and terrorism explode across our lives, We hear the macho gameplaying of our leaders under the giant shadow of war and rumors of war. And we sense that the world is out of control, reeling toward some hideous nightmare end ... nuclear or toxic. And we know that we must reach beyond this world for anything approximating hope. And beyond this world, there is only the mystery, the wonder, the star.
It was Albert Einstein who said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious." And it is that mystery, that wonder, that capacity to dream that we celebrate through the story of the Wise Men at Epiphany. It is the awesome light that the Wise Men were shown that transcends all order, all ethics, all understanding.
So what shall we do? Whatever shall we do?
Being warned in a dream, the wise men decided to go back home another way, and so can we. We can resist the Herods of our time who try to trick us into the subtle cynicism of believing that wonder and dreams and imagination are the venues of children alone and not for so-called grown up, practical men and women. Contemporary Herods may be very smart, but they will not be very wise.
Contemporary Herods are all those people, institutions, and cultural assumptions that kill the childlike wonder in us all. Herods inside or outside us always say ... "It can't be done ... there is no way ... you must never take a chance ... everything you do must be useful and efficient ... imagination is worth nothing ... playing is wasteful ... do not follow stars."
To help you develop your wisdom you might just begin by doing something very simple ... not grand.
For instance you might take a course in watercolor painting, or get season tickets to the symphony, or the theater. Or you might read a book of poetry ... slowly, or you might study the colors on the skin of a pear, or you might "play like" the pansies are talking to each other, or you might look much longer than usual at your face in a mirror, not to shave, or put on makeup or do anything other than ponder the mystery of yourself. Or you might write down every question you ever had or were afraid to let yourself even ask, not to search for answers, but to live the mystery of the questions, or you might get a copy of the photograph of the earth ... taken from the moon and wonder at our place in the universe.
In short, we can decide to pay more attention to all of life. We can decide to listen more to the silence. We can decide not to be so hurried, and so closed and so secular, that we do not even see the star ... the star shining in the face of our own children ... the star shimmering in the joy and wonder of all creation.
A bishop recently returned from a trip to Africa where he had discussed the issue of ordaining women with African bishops who were opposed to the idea. He made the following observation. "Their objections seemed to be less theologically based than I had supposed. It was more that they could not imagine a woman in that role. They cannot do what they cannot imagine."
That fundamental insight has to do with another way of going back home for wise people. Because the sense of wonder and the capacity to dream lets us have imagination and imagination is a future-oriented, a creative function that has the ability to take past knowledge and project it into the not yet. In short, to follow a star.
We really don't know what it was like for the wise men when they arrived back home. We can only imagine. But their message at Epiphany is about going home another way ... about avoiding Herod. It is not about certainties given, but about journeying with joy and wonder in all creation. It is about dreaming of new futures; it is about following the star of Christ. "O, star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright; westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light."
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