Archive for the ‘holidays’ Category

Epiphany: Blessing for Those Who Have Far to Travel

December 31, 2011

Epiphany © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany, Years ABC: Matthew 2.1-12

Merry Christmas to you, still! Because Advent is always such a wonderfully intense time for me, with offering The Advent Door and being engaged in other holiday happenings, I usually arrive at Christmas Day quite spent and ready for a long winter’s nap. I am grateful that instead of being over on December 25, when I’m finally able to take a breath, Christmas is a season—a short one, to be sure, with only twelve days, but a season nonetheless, with its own rhythm and invitations.

This year, the days of Christmas have been for me a time of resting, connecting with family and friends, long walks in the beautiful Florida sunshine, and doing some dreaming about the year ahead. Though the coming months are sure to be marked by surprises, I want to enter the year with some sense of what I’d like for the path to look like, and where I’m feeling drawn to go.

The Christmas season ends with Epiphany, a feast day in which the early church celebrated Jesus’ brilliant manifestation (epiphaneia in Greek, also translated as “appearing”) not only to the Magi but also to the world through his birth, baptism, and first recorded miracle at the wedding at Cana. Eastern Christianity maintains this multifaceted celebration of Epiphany, while we in the West focus primarily on remembering and celebrating the arrival of the Magi, those mysterious and devoted Wise Men who traveled far to welcome the Christ and offer their gifts.

As we travel toward Epiphany and savor the final days of Christmas, this is a good time to ponder where we are in our journey. As we cross into the coming year, where do you find yourself on the path? Have you been traveling more by intention or by reacting to what’s come your way? What direction do you feel drawn to go in during the coming weeks and months? Is there anything you need to let go of—or to find—in order to take the next step? In the coming months, what gift do you most need to offer, that only you can give?

Blessings and traveling mercies to you as we approach Epiphany and the year to come. I look forward to walking with you.

For Those Who Have Far to Travel
An Epiphany Blessing

If you could see
the journey whole
you might never
undertake it;
might never dare
the first step
that propels you
from the place
you have known
toward the place
you know not.

Call it
one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it
only by stages
as it opens
before us,
as it comes into
our keeping
step by
single step.

There is nothing
for it
but to go
and by our going
take the vows
the pilgrim takes:

to be faithful to
the next step;
to rely on more
than the map;
to heed the signposts
of intuition and dream;
to follow the star
that only you
will recognize;

to keep an open eye
for the wonders that
attend the path;
to press on
beyond distractions
beyond fatigue
beyond what would
tempt you
from the way.

There are vows
that only you
will know;
the secret promises
for your particular path
and the new ones
you will need to make
when the road
is revealed
by turns
you could not
have foreseen.

Keep them, break them,
make them again:
each promise becomes
part of the path;
each choice creates
the road
that will take you
to the place
where at last
you will kneel

to offer the gift
most needed—
the gift that only you
can give—
before turning to go
home by
another way.

P.S. For another reflection on Epiphany (which includes a bonus gift of a downloadable mini-retreat), visit this new reflection at my Sanctuary of Women blog:

Celebrating Women’s Christmas

For previous reflections on Epiphany here at The Painted Prayerbook, click the images or titles below. Also, the special holiday discount on annual subscriptions to Jan Richardson Images (the website that makes my work available for use in worship and education) will be available through Epiphany Day (January 6). For info, visit Jan Richardson Images.

Epiphany: Where the Map Begins

Feast of the Epiphany: Blessing the House

Feast of the Epiphany: A Calendar of Kings

The Feast of the Epiphany: Magi and Mystery

[To use the "Epiphany" image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Epiphany: Where the Map Begins

December 30, 2010

An Ancient Light © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany ABC: Matthew 2.1-12

I love this time between Christmas Day and Epiphany. Although the prospect of moving beyond the holidays is always a bit poignant for me, I take comfort in knowing that the festival of Christmas lasts not for one day but for twelve, and there is still cause for celebration before we leave this season. This year in particular I am grateful for the opportunity to rest and reflect, and to do some dreaming as well as playing before I dive into the coming year.

In these blissfully quiet days, I have spent time curled up with a few books. One that I am especially savoring was a Christmas gift from my parents. Mapping the World: Stories of Geography, written by Caroline and Martine Laffon, is a beautifully produced book that traces some of the history of how we humans have sought to chart the universe, and our place within it, over millennia. With images of maps from ancient to contemporary times, the book reveals how maps are never neutral documents: they provide a glimpse of the beliefs, myths, legends, and sometimes prejudices of those who created them.

I have spent much time this year thinking about maps. In retreats, workshops, worship, and conversation, the question has surfaced again and again: In a world that we enter with no map in hand, no blueprint, no book of instructions, how do we find our way? In the Wellspring service, the contemplative worship gathering that Gary and I lead, we recently finished a five-part series titled “Mapping the Mysteries of Faith.” As we explored this theme and the questions that it stirred, the conversations we had at Wellspring were rich and refreshing. We didn’t leave with many answers—that’s not the point of the Wellspring service—but I found myself reminded once again of how crucial it is to have the company of wise travelers as we make our own maps.

With Epiphany on the horizon, I find myself thinking of the magi, those ancient travelers who went in search of the Christ. Wise to the heavens, they still possessed no map, no ready-made chart that laid out their course.  As Matthew tells it, all that the magi had to illuminate their terrain and guide their way was a star. This was where their map began: with a burning light, with a step taken, with the company of others gazing in the same direction.

In that spirit, here’s a new poem. Composed while I was curled up among the books, it’s for Epiphany, and for you.

Where the Map Begins

This is not
any map you know.
Forget longitude.
Forget latitude.
Do not think
of distances
or of plotting
the most direct route.
Astrolabe, sextant, compass:
these will not help you here.

This is the map
that begins with a star.
This is the chart
that starts with fire,
with blazing,
with an ancient light
that has outlasted
generations, empires,
cultures, wars.

Look starward once,
then look away.
Close your eyes
and see how the map
begins to blossom
behind your lids,
how it constellates,
its lines stretching out
from where you stand.

You cannot see it all,
cannot divine the way
it will turn and spiral,
cannot perceive how
the road you walk
will lead you finally inside,
through the labyrinth
of your own heart
and belly
and lungs.

But step out,
and you will know
what the wise who traveled
this path before you
the treasure in this map
is buried not at journey’s end
but at its beginning.

As we travel through these Christmas days toward Epiphany and the coming year, where do you find yourself in your map? What are you giving your attention to? Are you looking in a direction that enables you to see possible paths? Is there a turn you need to take in your map? Where might you begin? Who can help?

As we travel toward Epiphany and beyond, blessings and good company to you.

[For previous Epiphany reflections, visit Feast of the Epiphany: Blessing the House; Feast of the Epiphany: A Calendar of Kings; Inviting Epiphany; and The Feast of the Epiphany: Magi and Mystery.]

[To use the "An Ancient Light" image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Feast of the Epiphany: Blessing the House

December 31, 2009

The Wise Ones © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany, Years ABC: Matthew 2.1-12

In the rhythm of the liturgical year, the season of Christmas comes to an end with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The word epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, meaning manifestation or appearance. In Western Christianity, we observe this day primarily as a commemoration of the wise men who journeyed to see Jesus. In the East, Epiphany is a major feast day that celebrates not only Christ’s manifestation to the world through his birth and to the magi in their visit but also the way in which he showed himself forth in his baptism and in his first recorded miracle, the changing of water to wine at the wedding at Cana.

In doing some reading about the Feast of the Epiphany recently, I’ve been intrigued by a custom that is often mentioned in connection with this day of celebration: the blessing and chalking of the house. Many versions of the ceremony that I’ve come across include these elements:

-The reciting of a blessing upon the house (or other dwelling) and those who inhabit it

-The blessing of a piece of chalk that is then used to write a formula above the entry of the house. The formula incorporates the current year with the initials of the wise men (whose names are not recorded in scripture but were given by tradition as Caspar [or Gaspar], Melchior, and Balthasar). This coming Epiphany, it would be written this way:

20 + C + M + B + 10

(Some folks note that “C M B” can also stand for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat,” which means “May Christ bless this dwelling.”)

-The sprinkling of the door with holy water

Although it seems to be an ancient practice, I haven’t found any explanation of the origin of the custom. I suspect that, like many rituals, it has several layers of meaning and that its origin has more than one source. Certainly it has much resonance with the visit of the wise men to the home of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and the manner in which they blessed it with their presence and their gifts.

So I’ve been thinking about house blessings as Epiphany approaches, especially since Gary and I will soon be in search of a house of our own. We’re engaged to be married next spring, and I’m daily praying that God will lead us to a (spacious) abode that will welcome two adults, each of whom needs a studio at home (and a copious measure of personal space), and Gary’s teenaged son. (Did I mention we’re looking for something spacious?)

At the same time that I’m thinking of (and praying for) a physical dwelling that we will inhabit and bless, I also find myself imagining the coming year as a house—a space in time that is opening itself to all of us. How will we inhabit the coming year? How will we enter it with mindfulness and with intention? How will we move through the rooms of the coming months in a way that brings blessing to this world?

With these questions in mind, I offer this blessing for you.

The Year as a House: A Blessing

Think of the year
as a house:
door flung wide
in welcome,
threshold swept
and waiting,
a graced spaciousness
opening and offering itself
to you.

Let it be blessed
in every room.
Let it be hallowed
in every corner.
Let every nook
be a refuge
and every object
set to holy use.

Let it be here
that safety will rest.
Let it be here
that health will make its home.
Let it be here
that peace will show its face.
Let it be here
that love will find its way.

let the weary come
let the aching come
let the lost come
let the sorrowing come.

let them find their rest
and let them find their soothing
and let them find their place
and let them find their delight.

And may it be
in this house of a year
that the seasons will spin in beauty,
and may it be
in these turning days
that time will spiral with joy.
And may it be
that its rooms will fill
with ordinary grace
and light spill from every window
to welcome the stranger home.

Wherever you make your home, may it be blessed, and may you enter this Epiphany and the coming year in peace.

[For other Epiphany reflections, please visit my previous post. If you're working with the lection from John's gospel for this Sunday (Christmas 2), please see this reflection.]

[To use the "Wise Ones" image, which is from my book In Wisdom's Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season, please visit this page at For all my artwork for the Feast of the Epiphany, please see this page. Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Inviting Epiphany

December 30, 2008

Wise Women Also Came © Jan L. Richardson

I’m working on a reflection for the gospel lection for Epiphany, but in the meantime, I offer you this festive trio to get the celebration under way. Wise Women Also Came was one of the first collages I did when I started to discover, many years ago, that there was an artist lurking in me. I created this as my Epiphany (i.e., belated Christmas) card the year I graduated from seminary. I made it out of plain construction paper; this was before I had discovered the wondrous world of art papers. (A trip to The Japanese Paper Place, now simply called The Paper Place, while visiting my sister in Toronto changed all that; you could say that walking into its stunning space was, well, an epiphany.)

These wise women made their way onto the cover of my first book, which I was writing during the same time that I was getting to know my inner artist. They also made an appearance in Night Visions, my first book to wed my writing and my artwork. This time a poem accompanied the women:

Wise Women Also Came

Wise women also came.
The fire burned
in their wombs
long before they saw
the flaming star
in the sky.
They walked in shadows,
trusting the path
would open
under the light of the moon.

Wise women also came,
seeking no directions,
no permission
from any king.
They came
by their own authority,
their own desire,
their own longing.
They came in quiet,
spreading no rumors,
sparking no fears
to lead
to innocents’ slaughter,
to their sister Rachel’s
inconsolable lamentations.

Wise women also came,
and they brought
useful gifts:
water for labor’s washing,
fire for warm illumination,
a blanket for swaddling.

Wise women also came,
at least three of them,
holding Mary in the labor,
crying out with her
in the birth pangs,
breathing ancient blessings
into her ear.

Wise women also came,
and they went,
as wise women always do,
home a different way.

Next week, in the wake of an intense season of travels and other endeavors, I’ll resume working on a new book. It’s something of a sequel to Sacred Journeys, the book I was writing when these wise women took shape. Though I rarely find writing easy (when folks ask me if I enjoy writing, I usually say, “I enjoy having written”), I’m looking forward to reentering the rhythm of working on a book in a focused fashion. It seems an opportune time to revisit these wise women as I seek a blessing for the path, and the book, ahead. I wonder who will show up this time, and what epiphanies they will have in store.

Who have been the wise women in your life? What epiphanies have they instigated? Here at the ending of the year, what wisdom do you want to gather up from the past twelve months and take with you into the coming year? What blessing, what gifts, do you need to receive for the path ahead? What gifts do you need to offer, that only you can give?

Peace to you in this time of turning.

[To use this image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Merry (Continued) Christmas!

December 26, 2008

Presentation the Temple © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Christmas 1: Luke 2.22-40

A blessed Feast of St. Stephen and a Happy Boxing Day to you! Advent tends to be such an intense season for me that this year I find myself particularly grateful that Christmas is not just one day, concluding at midnight last night (at which point the radio station I was listening to abruptly ceased its Christmas music) but rather a period of twelve days. There’s some variation as to when the Twelve Days of Christmas begin; some say Christmas night, others begin counting on December 26; regardless, it’s finished by Epiphany on January 6. The point, however, is that Christmas invites us to not wrap up our celebration of the Incarnation too quickly.

This period offers us several feast days that add texture to the season. Two of them commemorate folks who were important in the life of the early church; today is the Feast of St. Stephen (the first Christian martyr), and tomorrow is the Feast of St. John the Evangelist (to whom the fourth gospel is attributed). December 28 offers us the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which bids us remember Matthew’s story of the slaughter of the male children in Bethlehem. This feast in particular calls us to acknowledge the shadow side of Christmas and to be mindful of our call to relieve the suffering that persists even amid the joy of the Incarnation.

This year, as I recover from the blessed intensities of the Advent season, I’m giving particular thought to how I might linger in my celebration of Christmas, how I might find some festive rest in these days. In this period between Christmas Day and Epiphany, are there any practices I might take on that would help me savor this season? Might those practices become new traditions in my own observance of the fullness of Christmas?

In the spirit of seeking some rest in this time, my reflection on the lectionary this week will be abbreviated. This Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary gives us Luke 2.22-40 for our gospel reading. Luke tells us of how Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple, which, according to the law, would have occurred forty days after Jesus’ birth. They went not only to present Jesus but also for Mary to go through the prescribed rituals of purification following a birth. In the Temple they meet the prophets Simeon and Anna, who have long waited for this moment.

When I created a mixed media series called The Advent Hours a few years ago, I included a depiction of this moment in the Temple; it’s the image above (somewhat cropped for my purposes here). In creating it, I borrowed from medieval artists who rendered this scene, particularly the artists whose illuminated prayerbooks inspired this series. This is what I wrote to accompany my version of the Presentation in the Temple:

A light for revelation, Simeon says of Jesus when Mary and Joseph go to the temple to engage in the rituals required after the birth of a child. Medieval artists sometimes conflated the Presentation in the Temple with the Circumcision of Jesus, which would have happened several weeks previously. Although Simeon wouldn’t have actually held the knife, as these medieval artists sometimes depict, he has cutting words nonetheless: And a sword will pierce your own soul, too, he says to Mary. Then the prophet Anna arrives, and she sings of redemption, and perhaps Mary remembers: A light, he said; a light for revelation. A luminous Word.

So how might these Christmas days invite you to linger with the luminous Word whose birth we are not done celebrating? Where do you find yourself in the wake of December 25th? What were the gifts of Advent? What were the challenges? What do you need now? How will you get it?

December 26 finds me feeling both sentimental and expectant. Not to mention tired. But recovering. In the wee hours of yesterday morning, I posted my final reflection for this year’s journey toward Christmas at The Advent Door. As with last year, publishing my Christmas reflection, and ending the Advent pilgrimage, offered a poignant mix of relief and regret. Intense as they are—and in part because of their very intensity—I love the days of Advent, love diving into their richness and finding what new words and images they have yet to offer me. I’m always a little sorry to see those days go. But—they’ll come around again next year, inviting us once again to find new gifts in the ancient story of the Word that came, and comes still, as light and life.

If you didn’t make it all the way through The Advent Door, I invite you to pay a visit there as we move through these lingering days of Christmas. Until Advent rolls around again next year, I look forward to finding what the coming months have to offer and exploring that here at The Painted Prayerbook. I am grateful beyond measure for your presence on the path.

Merry (Twelve Days of) Christmas to you, and a wondrous new year ahead!

For What Binds Us

August 31, 2008

For What Binds Us © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 18/Ordinary 23/Pentecost +12: Matthew 18.15-20

Writing this, I’m sitting on the porch of a house on an island off Savannah, Georgia. Inside the house are the women with whom I spend each Labor Day weekend. From time to time I can hear their voices from where I sit; they are in the kitchen fixing dinner, or watching the game on TV, or talking at the table. These women are some of my closest friends from seminary. I have loved them nearly half my life. The seven of us are scattered across the Southeast: Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. We cross paths rarely during the rest of the year, but, in a tradition that began while we were still in school nearly two decades ago, we gather annually for several days of talking and eating and talking and eating and reading and napping and eating and did I mention talking?

Each of us is engaged in some kind of ministry. Most of us serve in settings beyond the local church, but all of us are connected with a congregation. And so, whenever we’re together, much of our talking has to do with church, and with all that comes from being part of a community still learning to be the body of Christ. Our stories reveal our awareness of the possibilities and painfulness that come with those relationships. We know how these communities can both call forth and stir up all that we are capable of as humans; we have seen the glory and the gore that come in attempting to be the church.

In our gospel lection for this Sunday, Jesus speaks to the challenge and the wonder of being in community. He recognizes that being his follower, being part of his body, will not relieve us of brokenness. Jesus is clear that being Christian doesn’t mean avoiding conflict, and that discord should not be allowed to fester and infect the entire body. He lays out a plan that requires his followers to engage a brother or sister who has done harm. His plan is one that seeks to preserve the dignity of the one perceived to have done wrong and to restore his or her relationship with the community.

Jesus’ blueprint for dealing with conflict is an ambitious one. It places a lot of trust in a church’s ability to discern what constitutes a sin and to deal with one another in ways that are both forthright and loving. I appreciate that he thought his followers could be this mature.

We Christians haven’t always been so good at this. In the presence of brokenness among the body, we have often either avoided making a direct response, or we have inflicted punishment that precludes ongoing relationship.

To engage one another in the way that Jesus describes in our gospel lection poses challenges on several fronts, not least of which is that we don’t always agree on what constitutes a sin. For another, we each have our own sins to reckon with, and times when we act out of our brokenness rather than our lovingness. It’s often so much easier to point toward what we see as sinful in another’s life than to deal with the ways that we ourselves bring harm to the body of Christ. Jesus knows this, too. It wasn’t so many chapters ago that he said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.3)

Dealing with the sources of conflict in the church requires such profound humility on our part. We find this kind of humility in this story of Abba Moses, a desert father who spent much of his earlier life as a robber:

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him. (Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.)

Being people of humility and forgiveness doesn’t mean doing away with discernment; after all, Abba Moses also cautioned, “Do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour.” The health of the community requires us to be vigilant about rooting out the sources of harm. Yet Christ calls us to do so with a spirit that acknowledges our own brokenness and shortcomings and seeks to restore relationships wherever possible.

Engaging one another around the most difficult challenges of living together means that we have to know each other. It compels us to see one another with a clarity by which we not only recognize one another’s shortcomings but also know each other’s stories. This clarity grows elusive in a culture where face-to-face connections are becoming more difficult to form and maintain. It requires effort and intention to seek and sustain such seeing. My days with the women of this Labor Day group remind me how much the effort is worth. These women call me to remember what is possible among people who know one another this well, who know the questions to ask, who know how to challenge and sustain and accompany and love one another into being.

Jesus recognized the power of this kind of knowing. For all the challenges of conflict in a community, the power of concord is stronger. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus goes on to say in this passage, “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Where we find a place of connection amid conflict, where we gather in the name of the one who calls us to be his body, where we give ourselves to knowing one another: that is not only astounding, it is a miracle that moves heaven and earth.

Jesus underscores this by telling his followers what he has recently told Peter: that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Jesus’ phrase about binding and loosing come from the rabbinic tradition, in which rabbis had the power to discern whether a questionable action would be permitted under the law. Yet in the context of this passage about our life together as followers of Christ, his words about binding and loosing prompt me to ponder what connects us, those threads that seem so strong and slack by turns. I think of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “For What Binds Us,” how she describes the scars that grow from our loving of one another, how those scars become cords that create “a single fabric that nothing can tear or mend.”

So, on this September day, what binds you? What holds you together with others? What do you fashion from the scars you carry? What do you long for in your relationships? What are you willing to do to find or create it? Who can help?

In your binding and loosing, in the conflict and concord that come in your loving: blessings.

[To use the "For What Binds Us" image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

A Postscript to Pentecost

May 11, 2008

Happy Pentecost to you! On this occasion of Pentecost’s unusual confluence with Mother’s Day, I’ve found myself thinking about the frequency with which Mary, the mother of Jesus, appears front and center in artful depictions of Pentecost. In the first chapter of Acts, the author makes a point of noting that “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus,” were among those who gathered in the upper room, devoting themselves to prayer. The text implies her prayerful presence at Pentecost, and artists across the centuries highlighted her among the gathered assembly. Because of her presence and leadership among the disciples, along with her role as the mother of Christ, Mary became known as Queen of the Apostles as well as Mother of the Church.

The artful images of the Pentecostal Mary illuminate an intriguing resonance with the story of the Annunciation. In Luke’s gospel, we read of how the angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. As with the Annunciation, paintings of Pentecost, such as this one in the St Albans Psalter, typically depict a woman open to the Spirit who appears—as so often in Christian iconography—in the form of a dove.

In much the same way that many medieval artists portrayed Mary reading at the Annunciation, they often depicted her in a similar fashion at Pentecost, as in this page from a 15th-century French Book of Hours. Another French Book of Hours depicts Mary kneeling at a prie-dieu as she reads, a motif that often appeared in artwork of the Annunciation.

As a blissfully incurable lover of books, I take great delight in these images of the literary, Pentecostal Mary who remained steeped in the Word throughout her life. These images also challenge me to ponder how I’m opening myself to the God who comes to us as both Word and Spirit. What do they stir in you?

On this day and all the days to come, may the Spirit breathe through the mothers and others who care for the children of the world.

(Artwork: Annunciation to Mary [detail] from The Advent Hours © Jan L. Richardson.)

The Feast of the Epiphany: Magi and Mystery

January 6, 2008

Magi and Mystery
Magi and Mystery © Jan L. Richardson

Merry Epiphany to you! I preached at First United Methodist Church of Winter Park this morning; here’s an approximation of what I shared.

Magi and Mystery
Matthew 2.1-12

We’ve seen them everywhere over the holidays: three regal men, sometimes depicted with camels, bearing gifts that they have traveled hundreds of miles to offer to Jesus. Although their story, which appears in the Gospel of Matthew, is distinct from the nativity story in Luke’s Gospel, and although it’s likely that they didn’t reach Mary, Joseph, and Jesus until Jesus was a couple of years old, these wise travelers are almost always depicted along with the shepherds and others who inhabit the story of the birth of Christ. Christmas cards and nativity sets vividly bring together the stories that Matthew and Luke offer. In the manger scene in my parents’ home, the wise men join not only the shepherds and the traditional cow and donkey who welcome Christ into the world; owing to my mom’s great sense of whimsy, they stand also alongside such creatures as a dinosaur, a moose, and a giraffe. Kind of a “Noah’s Ark meets the Nativity” sort of thing.

We have these really familiar images of these wise men who come to welcome the Christ and lavish him with gifts, but the truth is that Matthew’s Gospel tells us very little about them. Matthew refers to them as “magi,” a word that means wise men or astrologers. We’re not certain where they came from; possibly Persia, about a thousand miles away, where there was a class of priestly folk who were referred to as magi. We’re not sure how many of them there were. Because they offered three gifts, tradition has often assumed there were three wise men (one gift per wise man, please!), but estimates across the centuries have ranged from two to twelve. We don’t even know their names, though legend has called them Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

The wise men are sometimes referred to as the three kings, a designation that comes not from Matthew’s Gospel but from passages in the Hebrew scriptures that refer to kings who come bearing gifts for a great new ruler.

All this is to say that the magi are shrouded in mystery. In the midst of Matthew’s relative lack of information, we do know these things: they possessed the ability to read the heavens, they felt compelled to follow a star, they traveled a vast distance to welcome and pay homage to Jesus, and they brought him amazing presents.

I’m intrigued by the fact that Matthew, who is so fuzzy on certain details regarding the magi, is very specific about the gifts they brought. This suggests that the gifts are part of Matthew’s whole point in telling the tale of Jesus’ birth. The first hearers and readers of Matthew’s story would have understood the significance of the wise men’s offerings, but, as we ponder the story two millennia later, it’s good to remind ourselves of what these gifts would have meant.

In Jesus’ day, the first gift, gold, had lots of the same connotations that it does for us. It’s precious. It’s lavish. It’s a gift fit for a king. In the Bible, gold is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as royalty. Isaiah and the Psalms refer to kings who bring gold to honor a great ruler. For the wise men, the gift of gold was a way of acknowledging Jesus as a king.

It is, perhaps, a little harder for us to grasp the value of frankincense and myrrh. Both frankincense and myrrh come from the aromatic resin of trees. More bluntly put, they are dried tree sap. What a gift for a child! But in Jesus’ time, they were costly, myrrh especially so. Frankincense was typically used in religious rituals. In Exodus 30, God tells Moses to make an incense that includes frankincense, for use in the tent of meeting, where God meets with the priests; God tells Moses, “It shall be for you most holy.” The wise men’s gift of frankincense symbolizes that God has come in the person of Christ, that Christ himself has become the place of meeting between divinity and humanity.

Myrrh seems like perhaps the strangest gift of all. In Jesus’ time, it was especially associated with funerals and was used in the process of preparing a body for burial. In the New Testament, the only mentions of myrrh, besides today’s reading, are in the gospels of Mark and John, in connection with Jesus’ crucifixion and death. This seems a curious gift for a young child, and I have to wonder if this gift haunted Jesus a bit. Though it carries some foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus, I think the magi intended it not as a morbid gift but rather as a reminder to Jesus that, even for him, earthly life is brief, and we are called to use it well.

On this day of Epiphany, as we set off into the new year, I want to invite us to think of the wise men’s gifts to Jesus as gifts for us as well. These gifts, rich with symbolism, have invitations for us who seek to follow Christ, who are the body of Christ. I want to suggest that within these gifts, so rich with significance and symbolism, are questions that can accompany us into this new year.

The gift of gold, the gift that recognized Jesus was as a king, invites us to consider the question: Who were you born to be? This is perhaps the most crucial and most complicated question of our lives. Some of the most interesting people I know are those who, well along in their journey, are actively discerning who God has called them to be. When I was in seminary, half of my classmates were what we call “second career students,” folks who had been doing some other work in the world before discerning a call that involved theological training. I entered seminary straight out of college, very wet behind the ears, and it was a wonderfully rich experience to be in classes with folks in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. They were a great reminder that this process of becoming who we were born to be is a lifelong adventure. That’s true even for those of us who carry a strong sense of what we’re called to do. I tend to be really focused—I sometimes think of it as Attention Surplus Disorder—and have always had some sense of what I’ve wanted to do. What I wanted to do went through some changes before I discerned a call to ordained ministry, but I can see the common thread linking those vocations I was interested in. Even now, in a vocation that has taken me deeply into who I believe I was born to be, I’m still growing into my understanding of that call.

The gift of frankincense, the gift that recognized Jesus as the one who is a meeting place of humanity and divinity, invites us to ponder the question: How do you want to encounter God? This kind of question is at the core of the Connect theme that we’re living with at First Church. As we set out into this new year, how might you seek to stay connected with God, within and beyond this congregation?

The gift of myrrh, the gift that recognized that even for Jesus, earthly life is brief, a twinkling of an eye, invites us to reflect on the question, What is your relationship with time? How do you enter into your days in a way that helps you discern who you are and helps you seek God? Annie Dillard writes that “how we spend our days is, after all, how we spend our lives.” She also writes, “Live every day as if it were your last and then someday you’ll be right.”

So, a trinity of questions for this new year:

Who were you born to be?

How do you want to encounter God?

What is your relationship with time?

Carrying the crucial questions can be uncomfortable. It’s not always easy to live with mystery, but I’ve found that a good question can carry me a long way. It invites me to rely on God to show me the path, rather than thinking I should always rely on myself to know everything and do everything.

The magi didn’t show up with maps; they brought gifts that helped Jesus know who he was. Like the wise men, who had to travel by another road when they left Jesus, we may find ourselves on some strange and unfamiliar and mapless paths when we seek to follow Christ. But in his company, we will, like those wise travelers, find our way home.

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A New Blog for the Holidays (I resisted naming it The Yule Blog)…

December 2, 2007

Happy Advent! During these weeks that lead us to Christmas, I’ll be posting primarily from a new blog I’ve created for the season. I welcome you to stop by The Advent Door for some peace and quiet in these days!

Music and Mystery

November 30, 2007


Like lots of folks, I rely on music to help me cross into the holiday season and to navigate its terrain. During Advent and Christmas we anticipate and celebrate the incarnation, the Word who became flesh, but sometimes it takes more than words alone to evoke and enter into the mysteries of the story of the God who came to be with us.

Over the past few years, I’ve gone in search of Christmas music that takes my ears beyond the customary holiday fare. Although there are some contemporary songs in my stack of holiday CDs, my collection leans pretty heavily toward music that reaches backward in time. This is music that draws the listener deep into the layers of stories and legends surrounding the birth of Christ, music that echoes with the ancient human longing for light and celebration in a dark time. These are songs of signs and wonders, with words and melodies that beckon us to enter into the audacious, mysterious, hopeful, and wild tales they have to tell.

Here’s some of what I’ll be listening to as this holy season begins.

Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols
Legends of St. Nicholas
On Yoolis Night

Anonymous 4

The women of Anonymous 4 are masters of reaching into the treasures of centuries past to offer sustenance in the present. These three CDs are now available in a boxed set titled Noël: Carols & Chants for Christmas; the set also includes the CD A Star in the East, a collection of medieval chant from Hungary. (As a single CD, A Star in the East is now available under the somewhat more mundane title Christmas Music From Medieval Hungary).

La Bela Naissença: Christmas Carols from Provence
Patrick Vaillant, et al.

Ooohhh, I really love this one; it’s one of the newest in my collection and is among my all-time favorites. I first heard excerpts from it on Harmonia, the splendid radio show that features early music and offers archived shows on its web site. “La Fugida en Egipte” (The Flight into Egypt), with its wry alleluia, is worth the price of the CD, and Patrick Vaillant’s liner notes are a big slab of icing (chocolate) on this Christmas cake. He writes,

the Nativity is not just a series of images. A whole imaginary world is stirring behind them, and it is this that carries the entire story and all its little meanders, giving a bit of legend here and a measure of familiarity there to the whole mystery. The music is there to reveal, to unfold the tale, to give these images their dimension in sound….Christmas carols are witnesses.

The Bells of Dublin
The Chieftains

A great CD with a big dose of Irish flair. Here the Chieftains mix it up with such folks as Elvis Costello, Nanci Griffith, and Marianne Faithfull, plus Jackson Browne with his song “The Rebel Jesus,” which should be part of the Christmas carol canon.

Bruce Cockburn

One of the first CDs I purchased when I started searching for nontraditional fare. It’s actually very traditional, in the sense that it draws on lots of old carols, including the haunting “Iesus Ahatonnia” (The Huron Carol, written by a Jesuit missionary in the early 1600s; Cockburn says it’s the first Canadian Christmas carol) and “Down In Yon Forest” (of which Cockburn writes, “If there were a contest for the title of the spookiest Christmas carol, this ought to win hands down”). Though filled with traditional fare, the Canadian Cockburn puts a spin on it that makes it feel like a different animal entirely.

Christmas Through the Ages
Various artists; the composers include Arcangelo Corelli (how could he not have written Christmas music, with a name like that?), Benjamin Britten, and John Rutter

Aside from the tasty Christmas fare this contains, I couldn’t resist having a CD with a cover that features a fantastic depiction of the wise men wearing what look like particolored stockings, from a 6th century mosaic in the basilica of San Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. (Here’s a link to a photo of the spiffy magi.)

The Black Madonna: Pilgrim Songs from the Monastery of Montserrat
Ensemble Unicorn

This isn’t specifically a Christmas CD, but this wondrous collection of medieval pilgrim songs from Spain begins with a song about the Annunciation to Mary and ends with a Catalan round that makes mention of the magi. Sandwiched in between is a festive array of songs that tell some of the stories and miracles of the mother of Christ. The CD includes a couple of selections from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, an enormous collection of 13th-century songs in praise of the Virgin Mary. Written in Galician-Portuguese during the reign of King Alfonso X, known as “El Sabio” (“The Wise”), a number of the songs are attributed to El Sabio himself. The interaction of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions often exerted an intriguing influence on the culture of medieval Spain. The songs included in The Black Madonna bear witness to this; they convey the sense that something very ancient and complex is at work in them.

Mistletoe and Wine
Mediaeval Baebes

Baebes indeed. This CD gathers up songs from a couple of their previous holiday CDs and includes “There Is No Rose Of Swych Vertu” and “The Coventry Carol.”

To Drive the Cold Winter Away
Loreena McKennitt

Containing a couple of original songs from this distinctive Canadian singer-composer, this CD primarily features traditional Christmas music from England, Ireland, and Scotland.

A Winter’s Solstice III
Windham Hill Artists

For sentimental reasons. This is one of the oldest in my collection of cool Christmas CDs. I still particularly delight in Pierce Pettis’ take on “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Barbara Higbie’s “Lullay, Lully.”

The Night of Heaven & Earth
Gary Doles

I’ve been saving the best for last. This CD makes me think of a passage from the Book of Isaiah, where God says these words through the prophet: “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places” (Isaiah 45.3, NRSV). Gary (also known as Garrison) Doles is an award-winning singer-songwriter who has entered into the dark and secret places of the Advent and Christmas seasons and has found the riches there. With this treasure trove of utterly original songs, Gary invites us to come and find the delights and the challenges of the God who put on flesh and came to be with us. He also happens to be my sweetheart, and my enthusiasm about this CD isn’t merely a girlfriend’s bias; it’s this kind of amazing stuff that made me fall in love with him in the first place. Check out The Night of Heaven and Earth at CD Baby.

All this talk of Christmas music, I may not be able to wait until Advent to start listening, after all…

May your ears find many delights to draw you into the mysteries of the coming season.