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What does it take to find Jesus?
Two things. It takes the wisdom of scripture and tradition. And it takes an open, seeking heart.
Consider the magi. We sometimes call them the three kings, which is a lovely tradition, although the scripture story neither calls them kings nor says precisely how many of them there were. It simply calls them magoi, a word that basically means something like the English word “mages”—people who studied the stars and ancient lore. Anyway, consider the magi. Their astrological observations lead them to believe something important is happening in Judea. And so they set off on pilgrimage. These magi are the quintessential seekers. They don’t have the scriptures, but they have a seeking heart. They know, they just know, there is someone out there. Their hearts are longing and burning for him. They don’t quite know where they’ll find him, but they have an inkling about the right direction to start. So they load up the best of all their treasures and start their quest. And their intuitions carry them far, all the way to Jerusalem, six short miles from Bethlehem. But then they need something more. They can’t quite make it all the way to Jesus on their own. They have to stop for directions. They need the wisdom of the scripture and tradition of Israel to get them all the way there.
Now consider Herod and his scribes. They have scripture. They have tradition. They have plenty of it, and expertise to boot. Herod’s people can cite chapter and verse all day long. “Where’s the Messiah supposed to be born? No problem, I have a prophecy from Micah right here, complete with footnotes of all the eminent scholars and their interpretations and counterinterpretations.” Herod’s people are religious professionals. And yet for all their expertise they miss God’s point entirely. Worse than that, they lend the veneer of their religious authority to support a narcissistic, vicious ruler’s brutality. Without open, seeking hearts, all the scripture and tradition in the world profits them nothing.
How easy it is for religious people to stifle God’s presence under the weight of the scriptures. There’s very little that hasn’t been justified at some point or another by people claiming scripture and tradition on their side. Today I am often angry and appalled when I see Christian leaders praising things I think are cruel, like separating children from their parents at our borders, and finding scriptures to justify their position. But the fact is that Christians have found ways to justify things over the centuries from the Crusades, to the persecution of Jews, to slavery. It is easy to find scriptures to serve the status quo when you don’t have an open heart. And to be sure, it’s not only Christians. Every religion of the world has had its extremists who have done violence and evil in the name of the sacred. So Herod’s scribes in our story today stand for all the ways religion gets used to prop up injustice, or indifference—for religion without a seeker’s heart.
But for the magi it’s different. Those same scriptures that Herod’s scribes read with hearts of stone—the magi hear them and their hearts are set on fire. They gain wisdom their own musings could never have given them. They make it those last six miles; they find the Christ child and kneel and adore.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. And the word “epiphany” means a revelation or a manifestation—something being made clear that wasn’t known before. Today we celebrate Christ becoming known to these first foreigners who came looking for him. But just as importantly, we celebrate the fact that God has chosen to become known to us. Revelation is the theological term for that, and it happens in many ways. Theologians talk about two kinds of revelation: general revelation, and special revelation.
General revelation has to do with all the ways we can encounter God through the sheer experience of being a human being in the world. The beauty and order of nature; our innate yearning for meaning; the mystery of what happens after we die, and the paradox of why in the world anything exists in the first place: all these things have sparked people’s spiritual imaginations ever since there have been people to wonder about them. They’re not proofs of God’s existence. But they’re hints. Like the magi following their signs in the sky, general revelation takes us a long way towards God.
Special revelation is different, because it’s more specific. Special revelation is all the ways God becomes known to us through the stories of scripture and the practices of the worshiping community. We learn things about God from, say, reading the stories of Abraham or Moses or Jesus that we wouldn’t have been able to know just by looking at a sunset or meditating on existence. Special revelation is about leaning on our ancestors in the faith and trusting in the ways God has chosen to be made known in history before we got here.
Now we live in a place and time where many people don’t see much use for special revelation, for institutional religion. And given how religion can indeed become toxic, that’s very understandable. And yet here we are. Here in this place we practice a specific tradition, and we do it with joy—because there are things you can do as a spiritual practitioner that you simply can’t do as a spiritual tourist. Committing to a religious tradition and a way of life allows you to go deep, not just broad. So here in this place we read these specific scriptures. We do these specific things with water and oil and bread and wine. We practice the Christian tradition with joy and delight, because through it we believe we’ve come to know more about God than we ever could have otherwise. And not just to know about God, because after all, that’s not the real goal. The real goal is to know God. Not just to find out what town the Christ child is in, but to journey there and fall down in worship.
What does it take to find Jesus?
It takes the wisdom of scripture and tradition. And it takes an open, seeking heart.
O come, let us adore.