Detail from a mosaic of the Three Magi in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. Creative Commons / Wikipedia
Even in a fearful, divided and dark world, the Magi gracefully and joyfully sought the Christ child by seeing hope in a tiny point of light, writes a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
For many, 2016 is coming to a close with anger, fear and brokenness. How can we move forward? Some of my friends are writing, protesting, wearing a safety pin, donating money or praying. A public school teacher I know has hung signs on her classroom door -- “You are valued,” “You are free,” “You are worthy” -- indicating that every child is welcome and safe in that space.
All these strategies are helpful for keeping us from being trapped, as Presbyterian pastor Carol Gregg says, between anxiety and apathy.
But this season, I am finding a way forward with the Magi.
In her sermon “Stargazers,” preached Jan. 5, 2003, the eve of the Iraq War, Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis reminds us that the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12 were “adept at looking into the darkness and centering their lives on the light that leads to God.” Though all they saw of hope was a tiny point of light in a vast arena of dark, they rejoiced with a “really, really big joy.”
They set out on a journey that from the outside looked uncertain, impossible or even foolish. They had to find one humble newborn baby, dodge an evil and grasping king and a fearful Jerusalem, and find an alternate route home. They, like us, were dealing with a fearful, divided and dark world.
“How, having seen so little that was identifiably the fulfillment of God’s promises – could they feel so much joy?” asks Davis. The answer, she says, is that “the Magi had mastered the art of hoping in God.” These stargazers had “already grasped the wisdom of Proverbs: ‘The hope of the righteous is gladness.’”
The Magi’s hope did not depend on an outcome. Rather, it was, as it must be for us, a certainty and “a way of living that we choose,” until “gradually, day by day, we learn to be graceful in it.”
How can we be graceful in our hope when we feel anxious or numb? How can we be graceful in our hope so that it brings us, and those we teach, lead and love, a steady joy and a way forward into the new year?
On a recent trip to the gym, I stopped to watch the ice skating classes. As a toddler group tumbled off the ice in a riot of colorful coats and flailing arms and legs, the senior skaters waited quietly for their turn.
The six seniors -- in their 70s and 80s and all dressed in black -- then stepped carefully onto the ice and began to skate around the circle. Each moved with the confidence of years of practice, gliding gracefully and slowly, their arms outstretched for balance like great herons or cranes. Intent on their journeys around the rink, they moved with care and purpose. I had the sense that I was witnessing something ancient and sacred.
Like the Magi, the senior skaters were patient, careful, observant, focused, practiced and intentional. I envision the Magi, unlike the tumbling toddler skaters, as also wise enough to keep their arms extended for balance.
While we might feel more like the chaotic toddlers right now, there are three strategies that can help us become more graceful in our hope.
First, if we’re going to be graceful at anything, we must practice. While we may not be feeling that “really, really big joy” like the Magi, in order to move from the tumult of toddler skaters to the grace of those who have skated for a lifetime, we need practice. What do we see or hear in our lives, the church or the world that does give us hope, no matter how simple? Take a moment each day to seek out and dwell on that good news.
We must develop the habits of hope, not to become Pollyannaish, but rather to practice right seeing as we recognize and acknowledge the ways that God has been “our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.”
Second, we should seek out friends and mentors who help cultivate hope. The Magi journeyed to find the Christ child together. Did one convince the others to join the group? Did they each have a skill for the journey that, combined, made the trip possible? Did they listen to one another and encourage flagging spirits? Did they make collective and thus stronger decisions about which turns to take? Did they talk throughout the long, cold and dangerous nights under the star? What we do know is that they journeyed, arrived and worshipped the Christ child together.
Who can share an encouraging word, a hopeful image or a skill for the journey in this new year? Who can kindle a fire? Who can name constellations? Who has packed a sustaining snack? Who can think innovatively and thus help find “another way home”? As you grieve for what may have been lost in 2016, seek out those who hope. Working together, find ways to minister to the marginalized and the vulnerable.
Third, and most important, we must find a clear focus for hope. The senior skaters knew to keep their eyes on a point in the distance in order to maintain their balance as they glided gracefully forward. Without that clear focus, they may have fallen or stumbled.
Davis, too, notes that the Magi had a clear focus. The message of Epiphany is not “God is born in Christ, and all’s well with this old world.” All is not right with the world. Rather, the message of Epiphany is, “Jesus the Christ is born into our world, and for us who believe in him, there is a clear focus for our hope.” Like the Magi “who saw his star rise in the East and followed it,” Davis continues, “we Christians are stargazers, discerning a bright point of light in the darkness and following it as we travel a long and unfamiliar road.”
Even in a world of racism, sexism, xenophobia and war, the new year calls us to be, not the flailing, tumbling toddler skaters, but the wise and balanced seniors, with clear focus and outstretched arms. May the star guide your course.