Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This week we celebrated epiphany when the ‘Magi from the east came to Jerusalem’. The Greek μάγοι (magoi) can be translated as magicians, astrologers, or sorcerers. But in each of these translations the role of augerer – one who reads in the natural world signs that indicate important events – is the most important. And throughout the Old Testament and other Greek and Roman books (think of the Illiad by Homer or the Aeneid by Virgil) the importance of augury or prophesy in the ancient world, through the use of celestial signs (as well as dreams, the entrails of animals, the written and spoken utterances of those under the influence of the divine) was widespread. In my short address during our Zoom Eucharist last week I mentioned that Biblical scholars have had trouble harmonizing, or shall we say ironing out the seeming contradictions between the infant narrative of Luke and that of Matthew. I think that by looking at the role of prophesy at the time, there is a very clear harmony between the two narratives that is profound. In Luke’s presentation of Jesus at the Temple both Simeon and Anna are moved by the Holy Spirit to speak prophesy about Jesus to the Jewish people in the Temple. The Magi, whose number we don’t know, and who could have included women because women prophets were highly regarded by both the Jewish people and the Gentile peoples at the time, also prophesy about Jesus. My point here is that in both Matthew and Luke you have prophets proclaiming the arrival of Jesus – the Savior and King of the world. In Luke these prophets proclaim this truth to the Jews in the Temple and in Matthew the prophets proclaim this truth in the secular and Gentile-centric Royal Court of Herod. In other words, when you put together the Luke and Matthew passages you get Jesus proclaimed to both Jews and Gentiles, and that looks not only like harmony, but very good news indeed.
This week, especially the morning of Epiphany I was reading and thinking about the coming of Magi into Herod’s court. As many of you know, I am both a historian and a literary scholar. And one of my favorite medieval plays is the Herod play in the Wakefield mystery plays written in the early 1500s, and performed in Wakefield just down the road. I used to teach the ‘Second Shepherd’s play’ from this set or ‘cycle’ of plays when I lived in the U.S. never thinking I’d actually live just down the road from where they were written and performed! Anyhow, Herod is a great character, a real power crazed villain who completely loses it when the Magi come looking for the Christ child, the new King of the Jews (and as we know the entire world). So, on Wednesday morning I pulled this play down from my shelf and gave it a read, thinking about this letter I was going to write today. Little did I suspect that the play would have immediate relevance for me by nightfall.
After Herod finds out that the Magi are not returning to him, and that his rule is threatened by a ruler whose legitimacy far exceeds his, he goes mad, screaming at his courtiers,
Ah devil! Methink I burst for anger and for teen (hate)
I guess these Kings [the Magi] be passed that here with me have been
They promised me full fast ere now here to be seen…
It moves my heart right nought
To break their neck in two…
I shall – to this I high – set all at odds and even…
To set all at odds and even, by the evening here on Wednesday night, another ‘ruler’, who has refused to recognize his legitimately elected successor, ‘set all at odds and even’ by inciting a crowd to attack the United States Capitol, the home of American Democracy. Legislators hid under desks and tables, fearing for their lives. Police officers were attacked and one has now died, and the building was trashed. To set this in context, the Capitol has not been breached since the British attacked in 1814! I can’t tell you how horrified, shocked and saddened I was. As it unfolded I feared lives would be lost, and they were. It could have been much worse, and we still don’t know what the repercussions will be. It is especially shocking to hear reports of so many people who actually cheered on this attack. A modern-day Herod put his own interests ahead of those of others, of his country, of the world.
And as I said, I was horrified and felt despair. And I was thinking again about the Magi, and the Christ child, and this helped my despair to lift. Political self-interest that damages societies and leads to mayhem and death are nothing new to this world. Jesus’s coming gave us an alternative, and promises that in God’s time the entire world will be renewed. We believe and repeat this daily through the words of the Lord’s prayer that God’s Kingdom will come. We pray in the Eucharist that God’s Justice and Mercy will reign throughout the world. And each day good people are upheld by the Holy Spirit as they contribute to this justice and mercy, and participate in the coming of God’s Kingdom. On Wednesday the Revd Raphael Warnock, a Baptist minister, was elected to the U.S. Senate, and in his victory speech his words sought to place in the center of American politics an alternative to the Herod like hate and dissension. Warnock vowed to choose love over division as a Senator and quoted Matthew 23.39 asking people to choose to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There are many, indeed most, Americans who choose this love over the hatred shown at the Capitol on Wednesday.
The Wakefield medieval Mystery plays (as well as the York medieval Mystery plays), which draw, of course, on their source, the Gospels, make clear that the rulers of this world who exploit and ignore the well-being of their people cannot prevail. They remind us that the Herod’s of this world always fall, and that God’s promise for us and for our entire world can never be compromised.
And so, while I remain deeply saddened at the state of America at this time, where hatred and lies are being exploited for the political benefits of a few, to the great cost in lives and livelihoods of many, I know that there is also great good that continues. Because, and I keep using this quote from Paul often, Our Lord and Saviour remains our armor and our shield in these times, just as it was when the Magis proclaimed Christ’s dominion over this world:
‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8.38-9).
And this gives us strength to continue to live and work in
and for God’s Kingdom, the true Kingdom of this earth.
God Bless all of you and those you love during this time.
Revd Professor Jessica Malay
Almondbury with Farnley Tyas