It's Epiphany Sunday: the celebration of the journey of the three wise men. I did not go to church today, for a variety of reasons, so I missed the march of the three kings down the center aisle, the ponderous song, the elaborate costumes, the sermons about gift-giving, the reminders that the kings were probably astrologers from the place we know as Iran and that the story, which appears only in the gospel of Matthew, focuses largely on portents of doom in its emphasis on Herod and its funereal gifts. I missed, most of all, the ritualistic end of a difficult season.
But I am thinking about it, and what I am thinking about is Wisdom. What was it that made those men wise, and why are we so taken with the idea that wise men, as well as angels and shepherds, showed up in response to the arrival of the infant Jesus? Whether anything of the sort actually happened is beside the point; the question has to do with the role of Wisdom.
It's a personal question for me this year. Many people have, in writing and speaking to me, made reference to the wisdom that emerges from sorrow. The reality, though, is that wisdom is not a guaranteed by-product of heartbreak. In fact, other possibilities seem more likely: alcoholism, drug abuse, self-absorption, loss of direction, and various other forms of decline. We all know people who in response to great loss have frozen into fear and immobility, or have spent decades acting out the inner experience of deprivation and chaos. And. if you think about it, how many people of deep wisdom do you know? The number is a very, very small one. In fact, to know one or two such people at any stage of life is a great gift.
And so I've been thinking about the wise men, who paid attention to a shift in the heavens, whose curiousity got them moving, who travelled a long way togther, who were undeterred by the politics along the way and unabashed by the poverty of their destination , who brought gifts no mother would welcome, and whose experience altered their route home.
Wherein wisdom? In the initial attentiveness and curiosity? In the experience of hardship in community? In the refusal to succumb to challeges that might have undone them? In the intuitive knowledge of a shadowy future? In the willingness to give? In the recognition that a change in the road home was required? In surviving to tell the story?