WAS THE THIRD WISE MAN AN ASS? A sermon for the Epiphany
preached at S.LUKE’S QUEEN’S PARK BRIGHTON 6th January 2019
In return for the hefty subscription I pay to Sky TV for the privilege of watching ball-by-ball Test cricket, they throw in a load of extra mediocre programmes under the category of “documentary” channels – you know, Discovery, History, National Geographic, Yesterday etc etc.
Sometimes these channels screen laughable religious bombshells like “we can now reveal that Christ didn’t die on the cross at all” or “we can at last show you how to fool your friends by walking on water”. I’d love to be a fly on the wall at their editorial meetings discussing which bit of the Christian story to try to explode next?
Well, I’ve got a real cracker for them. Did you know?/we can now reveal there were only ever two wise men, not three because – wait for it – the one called Melchior was actually one of the asses in the stable all the time. “Malc-eeyore”. Geddit? A donkey called Malcolm.
Just my little joke. I don’t think even Sky TV would buy that one.
Seriously though, these sensationalist programmes are aimed showing that we Christians are a naïve lot who would believe anything and don’t use our brains enough.
Use our brains huh? Hang on a minute – that is exactly where the people S.Matthew calls the magi (magoi: Greek for “wise men”) come in. We need to ask what are these distinguished visitors from the East doing at the stable in Bethlehem?
Two weeks ago at Midnight Mass, the message was that God chose to come on earth not as a colossus bestriding the world but as a poor baby born to an unknown Jewish girl in a hovel. And that is true.
But get this as well. The visit of the Wise Men from afar gives us the cosmic significance of the incarnation. They were the very first foreigners to believe in Christ as saviour.
And they are as different as chalk and cheese to the primitive local shepherds. They are rich and exotic and learned. They stick out like a sore thumb.
The novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote a book called Helena which is based on the life of the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine.
At one point in the book, Helena is pictured sitting at the back of an Epiphany celebration. She drifts off into a fantasy that she is herself talking to the Wise Men:
“Like me”, she says, “you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way.........How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, while the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road,....laden with such preposterous gifts.........Yet you came, and were not turned away. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted, for they were brought with love. There was room for you too. You were not lower in the eyes of the Holy Family than the ox or the ass.
You are my especial patrons,” says Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents. Dear cousins, pray for the great, less they perish utterly, pray always for the learned. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”
Hmm. Beautifully written but what point is Evelyn Waugh trying to make? Why is he putting these words into Helena’s mouth? I think this is what was in his mind:
The shepherds represent the simple, the naive even, who take the gospel on trust without thinking about it too much. The wise men represent worldly wealth and worldly wisdom. Their motives are good, their gifts are sincere BUT they are cautious and sceptical. They act prudently and rationally.
Actually, I suspect Evelyn Waught is betraying a bit of his own raw psyche here.
He was a very smart, amusing and barbed writer. A bon viveur who liked the good things of life, a stickler for social etiquette and a terrible snob. At the same time, he was a committed and devout Catholic.
It is clear from his diaries and letters that he experienced an uncomfortable struggle between his personality and his faith. A friend once asked him how he could possibly call himself a Christian and be so nasty. His unconvincing reply was that, if he wasn’t a Christian, he’d be even more horrible!
In any case, in my opinion Evelyn Waugh’s take on the gospel and the words he puts in Helena’s mouth - the simple-minded going straight to heaven and the clever in danger of disqualifying themselves by their smartness - is WRONG.
When our Lord talks about the sanctity of the “little ones” or about not getting into the kingdom unless you become like children, He is not saying that those with an IQ of over 120 have had it or that adults have to start cavorting around like 4 year olds.
He is saying that we must have the openness of heart and mind which is found in the young.
He is saying that, when we grow up and lose our initial innocence, we must try not to become cynical, suspicious and defensive in our dealing with others - even though this means we run the risk of getting hurt sooner or later, and may find that others let us down, betray our trust or take advantage of it.
What does Our Lord really and truly want of us?
How about using the cross as a visual aid? Not a crucifix with the body attached but just the empty cross as a plain geometrical figure. Two planks. Two lines. One vertical. One horizontal.
First, look only at the vertical line. Helena (or Evelyn Waugh) sees this as a sliding scale: at the top (nearest heaven), the thick, the uneducated, the gorblimey, ranging gradually down to the clever, the educated, the sophisticated at the bottom.
Those in the top half, the idea goes, are saved and those in the bottom half are damned.
No, this isn’t right. Look at the cross again.
Because that vertical scale is cancelled out, “crossed” out, by the horizontal plank which represents a very different scale of values.
It doesn’t after all matter in the end how clever or stupid you are. That was never Our Lord’s test of true discipleship. What does matter is how you use the talents you find yourself given or the circumstances you find yourself in.
Are you clever? If so, has your cleverness made you arrogant - like the trendy atheists who are cocky enough to assure us impatiently that there can’t be any god - or do your abilities and your insights have the opposite effect and make you humble?
Are you rich? If so, do you cling on to your possessions and devote your efforts to acquiring more of them, or do you sit lightly to them and try to be generous to others?
Are you simple or are you poor? If so, do you close in on yourself, let yourself wallow in self-pity, resentment, envy and bitterness or are you still open to God so that you can feel His love, compassion and support even though the dice seem loaded against you?
You see, it is only the horizontal line that counts in this exercise, that matters in the end to God. The vertical line has gone, crossed out. God doesn’t care about whether you are clever or stupid or rich or poor.
The horizontal line is the one. This is a scale between at one end openness, generosity, tolerance, a willingness to trust and get hurt and at the other extreme slamming the door shut, stopping up your ears, hardening your heart and looking out for number one.
We know which end of that scale Our Saviour is to be found. It is obvious, not only from all He said but from all He did.
So just picture the cross and follow His star. Like the Chichester Diocesan booklet urges you to. Let the Star of Bethlehem pull you like a magnet to the right end of the horizontal line where, like the Wise Men of old, you will have the honour and the joy of meeting Christ face to face.