open book on a table

“Photo-tropic”

A sermon drawn from Matthew 2:1-12

Here we are celebrating Epiphany today – which we sometimes think of as the arrival of the Three Kings, sometimes as the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ, to the world, or maybe specifically to the Gentiles, since after all, we’ve read Luke’s gospel, so we know that Jesus has already been manifested as the Christ to those Judean shepherds …

And the set of readings for Epiphany Sunday are the same every year … every year, we return to this central story about the magi who come to Jerusalem “from the east” …

Did anyone besides me notice all the movement in this text?

First the magi – the wise men, the “three kings,” who may have been astrologers – arrive from “the east”; that word in Greek has a sense of “drawing near,” “getting close.”

We have images in our minds’ eyes, from our picture books and Christmas cards, of their long, lonely journey on camel-back across some ancient desert. In fact, though, at that time, in the first century of our era, they would probably have traveled on the Silk Road; that would have been a well-traveled and heavily trafficked route, with well-established rest stops along the way, the ancient equivalent of our truck stops, and likely other travelers, going back and forth to international centers in the Parthian empire, which was roughly present-day Iran, or to China, or India, all of which were thriving centers of civilization in those days – we suppose, that’s where their journey began.

Anyway, there’s a lot of motion implied in that very first sentence.

And then, after that frantic flurry of activity with Herod and the priests and scribes and looking things up in the Bible, the magi keep moving – to Bethlehem, keep moving closer and closer to the newborn Jesus. And when they arrive there, we notice, they move some more. They literally prostrate themselves before this new-born child, and present those famous gifts, that gold and frankincense and myrrh … further reaching out towards Jesus.

And then of course they travel back – specifically, we’re told, at divine instruction, by “another road” – and if we were to look at a map of the trade routes of the first century, we would see that they had a couple of good options … there’s been a lot of movement.

And here’s a funny thing about this movement, which people more alert than I am and with a better sense of direction may already have noticed:

These magi start out traveling from east to west.

What’s striking about that, if we think about it for a moment, is that, if someone were to ask us “how would you travel if you wanted to go towards the dawn,” or “towards the light,” we’d probably say, from west to east. Because we think of the sun itself as rising in the east and setting in the west. And if we imagine these three kings or these wise men in the way we usually do, as rich and wearing glittery crowns and fancy clothes, and making a glorious entrance with their camels and their treasure, we might almost get the impression that the wise men represent the sun in this story …

But if so, they represent the sun turning and traveling and paying homage to an even more glorious source of light, that has dawned, brilliantly and miraculously, in the west.

As if Matthew is saying, pay attention to this! Because everything is about to change …

Not only are these “three kings” coming to pay homage to the king of kings, it’s as if light itself is turning and moving towards this more perfect light.

One of the central themes of Epiphany is “light” – the meaning of the word “epiphany” is “a glorious appearance, a manifestation, often associated with a god” – and in our tradition, clearly, we think of it as the manifestation of the one true God, in Jesus, the Christ.

So Matthew the evangelist clearly wants us to notice that these magi, these wisdom figures, are on the move in response to light – first, in response to that star that they saw “in the east,” where they were sitting and watching the stars. And more fundamentally, in response to their knowledge of what that star meant, their understanding that it announced a new king, who mattered … who was special, was different … which I say because, if these magi were courtiers from some big eastern empire, they would presumably have seen their share of glorious royal figures. We’d expect them to have been more jaded than that.

Matthew wants us to appreciate, I think, that something revolutionary is happening here. Something that is meant to re-orients humanity. Something profound and dramatic. And, he points out, it’s going on in the very back yard of the political and religious establishment, the “experts” and “power figures” of the Judean world.

Who seem, frankly, not that interested. Kierkegaard pointed out a couple of hundred years ago or so …

Although the scribes could explain where the Messiah should be born, they remained quite unperturbed in Jerusalem. They did not accompany the Wise Men to seek him. Similarly we may be able to explain every article of our faith, yet remain spiritually motionless. The power that moved heaven and earth leaves us completely unmoved.

What a contrast! The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it spurred them to set out on a long, hard journey. The scribes, meanwhile, were much better informed, much better versed. They had sat and studied the scriptures for years, like so many dons. But it didn’t make any difference. Who had the more truth? Those who followed a rumor, or those who remained sitting, satisfied with all their knowledge?

[Søren Kierkegaard, but from where? Every place I find this has it IN an anthology or FROM an anthology (like Provocations), with no original source listed; and it’s not in Wikiquote; I’ve given up … for now]

Does anyone remember from their 6th grade science classes, something called “photo-tropism,” a word that means “movement” or “turning” or “growth” in response to light?

The best examples of photo-tropism are always plants, because apparently healthy plants do this really automatically: they sense the presence of light, and light is something plants recognize as very positive, probably because it means photosynthesis, nourishment, growth, energy; so they respond to that light in a way that I don’t know enough plant science to explain but by pretty literally stretching and growing themselves towards the source of the light. This is why, if we keep houseplants, we are supposed to turn them regularly, to keep the plants nice and straight, because otherwise photo-tropism will make them bend way over towards that light.

Spiritually speaking, the wise men seem to be phototropic, they move in response to the light: like healthy plants, in a way, they’re alert to its first appearance, they recognize it as something great when they see it, and they respond to it, they pack up their treasures and they get on their camels and they set off in the direction of more of that light. This makes the wise men, the magi, role models for us, actually – as Kierkegaard suggests, we’d do well to be more like them!

And less like those scribes in Jerusalem, with all their knowledge, but all their motionlessness. And of course we don’t want to be like Herod, who, if we read a little further in the gospel of Matthew, we learn actually tries to snuff out the light of Christ. He fails, of course, and thank God, but he tries to do that, and he hurts people and does damage in the process.

So maybe we should wonder, what makes the response of the wise men possible? What makes them so … photo-tropic, do we think? And is there any lesson in that for us, in our obviously very different circumstances?

We suppose that the magi are alert, notice the appearance of that star, because they are actively, regularly, looking at the stars … we think that was their job, or at least their interest. They saw the star right away because they were looking all the time in a place where they could expect to see light – in fact, there was already light to see.

And we imagine they understood the significance of that star, the meaning of that sign in the sky, because they had spent a lot of time studying and learning and coming to understand the meaning what they were looking at. They had already been seeking understanding.

But honestly, both of these characteristics, when we come right down to it, they shared with the scribes in Jerusalem, who had spent plenty of time with the scriptures, which we know is one source of light and enlightenment – they still are that for us; and who didn’t just read them, but studied them and tried to understand them, and to understand how they pertained to everyday life. They must have known that the appearance of God’s anointed would be a good thing for them and for the world, too.

So, in the end, the difference that Kierkegaard noticed must have had something to do with response. The wise men clearly wanted to get closer to this light, closer to the source of this light. They wanted to go, to see for themselves, to find out, to experience … to get closer … enough to make the trip.

So learning from the wise men, for us, probably doesn’t mean rushing out and buying a telescope … although that might be fun. It probably means taking seriously the practices we already have for opening our eyes to God’s light – reading and meditating on scripture, praying and listening for God, having spiritual conversation with others. And, because we know God is present and is at work in the world, and in our lives, paying attention to our world and to our lives, and to other people, watching and listening for the presence and the activity of God around us.

And then, developing our skills in discernment: becoming better able to recognize light for what it is, for something good, because in our world that can sometimes be confusing, too. Sometimes, light feels uncomfortable at first.

Getting better at that might take some practice – maybe something as simple as making a habit of thinking over the day, at the end of the day noticing, what were we most grateful for, what were we least grateful for, and paying some attention to the patterns: what really gives us life and light, what distances us from life and light …

But ultimately, if we are going to learn from these wise men, we will probably need to spend some time asking ourselves what makes us more willing to respond, to say “yes” to something, to want to get closer to someone or something … and what makes us less willing, to want to stay put. Because it was that willingness to move that really made the wise men photo-tropic; it was their willingness to say “yes, this is something we need to do …” and I’m afraid we are the ones who need to answer that question for ourselves.

But we do want to ask ourselves that question, and look for the answer …

Because one thing we know: God wants us to be photo-tropic – to turn and grow in response to God’s light.

God loves us. God wants us to flourish. If we were houseplants, God would, we know, be attentive to making sure we had enough water and fertilizer and turned our dishes every day or every week and kept us growing nice and straight and full.

But as we know, we are not houseplants. We know we can do a little more ourselves, or a little less, to turn and move in the direction of God’s light, and to soak up its goodness.

So this Epiphany, let’s take that seriously; let’s take a lesson from the wise men, and let’s watch for God’s light in our own lives, and let’s keep asking ourselves [in the light of God …] whether there’s something we need to do, today, or this week, or this year, to move – to stretch and grow – in the direction of God’s light.

We’ll be glad we did.

painting by Rembrandt showing Magi adoring infant Christ

Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Adoration of the Magi,” workshop of Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

3 responses to ““Photo-tropic””

  1. You have given me a new appreciation of the Magi story and of Epiphany in general. I confess that I have not always been fully attentive to the message of the season, probably because I am so captivated by Incarnation that I have trouble quickly turning the corner into another path of contemplation. I had never considered all the movement before. I had to re-read it in Greek–I hadn’t done that in quite some time. Noting the importance of the Magi’s movement from east to west was another “ah-hah” moment, and comparing the inactive attentiveness of the scribes to the active movement of the Magi was a revelation. But it was your analogy of phototropism that really enlightened me, no pun intended, and moved me to a deeper contemplation of what Matthew is doing in the story and what God is doing in life. Thank you for all of that.

    Liked by 1 person

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