The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Insights from Outsiders
The Three Kings are an iconic part of the Christmas story. They turn up in carols and devotional artwork, as well as a Monty Python movie and countless comic strips.
Of course, if you read Matthew, you'll find that the Epiphany story isn't about three kings, but an un-numbered collection of astrologers. That just goes to show that people often learn Bible stories better through music and artwork than from actually reading scripture.
Looking at the text, rather than singing the carol, reveals a challenging and urgent message for the contemporary world.
The wandering star-gazers who are at the heart of the story were going about their normal work, observing the movement of stars and planets, and discerning significance in those celestial events. They saw an unusual star "at its rising" which, according to their profession's specialized knowledge, indicated something about a new king born among the Jews. So they went to Jerusalem, the capitol city of the Jews, to pay a visit.
This came as a rude shock to King Herod, who did not observe the stars, but who carefully observed any threat to his power. Herod called in his advisors, and told them to tap into their own sources of revelation and wisdom -- the scriptures -- and thereby flesh out the secular message of the foreign astrologers, a message that he took very seriously.
When told to look for leads on unexpected kings, the biblical scholars found a passage that they had not previously discerned as pertinent for their own time: that a shepherd king would come from Bethlehem.
Herod takes seriously both the Magi and his own advisors. He learns from the outsiders when the star appeared, marking the birth of the contender to the throne, and sends them on to Bethlehem, hoping that they will serve as his spies and identify this new king.
Lo and behold, all of the messages were true! The wise guys find the child, present gifts, and hightail it out of Judea. Herod has less success figuring out which child in Bethlehem is the special one, so he slaughters all of the baby boys. He took no chances about the truth of the astrologer's interpretation.
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The Epiphany story is often referred to as "the revelation to the Gentiles," because those non-Jewish astrologers did come to see that important things were happening in Bethlehem. But the decisive part of the story for us is what we might call "the revelation through the Gentiles."
The secular message from the Persian astrologers shook up religion and politics in Israel. The Magi's arrival led Herod, the chief priests and the scribes to a remarkable new understanding of what was happening in their world.
There is a parallel situation of revelation today. Pronouncements of unexpected news have shaken up the nations, and confused religions. Today, it is atmospheric physicists and environmental biologists, going about their routine, secular work, who have seen an important message in the evidence that they are paid to observe and analyze. They see global climate change and ecological collapse as present realities. And like the Magi twenty centuries ago, some of those scientists have come to the political and religious leaders to share their important news.
Their revelation has been painfully slow to take root. We've heard the warnings, but not taken the bold action that is required.
For more than two decades, the United Nations has called governments together to acknowledge the facts and to broker agreements. This week, the 17th Conference of the Parties is being held in Durban, South Africa. Unfortunately, the old example of Herod still rings true. Those whose power and wealth are threatened are more inclined to preserve their privilege than to welcome new embodiments of truth.
I am frightened and angry that the powerful governments and corporations of the world are not taking seriously the revelation from the scientists. The facts about global heating have been acknowledged, but far too little is being done.
The expectations for Durban are meager. This year, no member of the US Congress even bothered to go to the UN negotiations. Canadian activist David Suzuki calls his government to accountability: "If our leaders do not plan to contribute to global efforts to stop climate change, they should go home and stop impeding other countries from finding solutions."
There is a contemporary challenge to faith communities that is just as urgent as the political one -- and it seems to be as poorly addressed.
In the old story, the priests and scribes, when alerted to the message from the Magi, discovered themes and insights in scripture that they had never perceived before. So, too, some of today's biblical scholars and theologians, alerted to an environmental perspective, are rediscovering parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition that help us understand how we fit into the whole web of God's creation.
A profound revelation about the nature of our faith, about our place and purpose in creation, has come to the church from an unexpected source -- from the realm of secular science. Through the last few decades, ecological and Earth-aware theologies have emerged. That is good news.
From my vantage point within the Christian environmental movement, though, those new expressions of belief have not been widely embraced. Congregations and denominations, for the most part, are maintaining liturgies and programs that are untouched by ecological insights. The modern challenge from the Magi has not led -- yet -- to a broad prophetic witness that calls us to new ways of living.
Most denominations have passed good resolutions that detail the ethical reasons to act on global warming. Religious activists have done good work educating on the issues, and working for practical and political change. There is a vibrant faith witness in Durban this week. But in most congregations and seminaries, ecological collapse is just one issue among many, and rather low on the list of priorities, at that. The fact that human "progress" is destroying God's creation has not brought forth a deep reworking of church ministries.
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The modern Magi have spoken clearly and persistently. Unlike the Persian astrologers, they have not gone home. The scientists continue to warn us about what is happening to Earth's fragile ecology. We still can respond to their message with public policies and religious beliefs that are adequate to the crisis.
In this Advent season, let us give thanks that God continues to speak to our world, even through the most unexpected of sources. Let us give thanks for all the faith communities that have discerned how the message of today's Magi calls us into a new and faithful ethic of global relationship with the entire web of life.
Right now, and far beyond this Advent season, let us be passionate and persistent in pushing our political and religious "leaders" to heed the urgent revelation from the Magi.
This version of "Insights from Outsiders" substantially revises an Eco-Justice Notes of the same title from ten years ago.
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