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When Archimedes discovered a way to determine the purity of gold by applying the principle of specific gravity, he allegedly exclaimed “Eureka!”, the perfect tense of the Greek verb heuriskein, meaning to find. That is, to his amazement, he had found the solution to his problem.
Ever since then, the term has been connected with research of any kind. However, a less known term that is heard uttered more frequently in research facilities is: Well, that’s weird, the present tense meaning “this is not at all what I expected to see.”
When these “magi”, these early astronomers, meteorologists, and astrophysicists over two thousand years ago saw a particular star rise in the sky, it was a sign to them of something that they had been tracking for some time. Perhaps, descendants of the scholarly community of Archimedes, their initial response was likely “Eureka!”
But, upon arriving at that rude stable outside of town, seeing no royal retinue from other countries crowded around, no apparent evidence that anyone else had realized the significance of that solar phenomenon, their next words were more likely “Well, that’s weird.”
Which brings us to today, on this twelfth day of Christmas, the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the new light that has dawned on the earth, a light that brings light to every nation, a light more powerful than any light has ever shone, and surprisingly it emanates from an infant whose cradle is a cow’s feeding trough in a barn.
That, is weird.
To the proverbial Martian landing here in Gainesville today and seeing all our vestments and hearing the bells, glorious music, and experiencing the heavily religious influence of the church in the social and political spheres, especially here in the buckle of the Bible’s Belt, it might seem that we have settled a little too comfortably into the certainty of our eureka and moved far away from the wondering of those early wise ones.
Well, the Martian would be partially right. The Church in its glorious affect has struggled through the centuries with its own enormous identity crisis. Different interpretations of what it means to be grounded in Christ’s humility have produced countless iterations of what it looks like to be a Christian. Some of us don’t play cards, dance, or drink (at least in public). Others do all those things and more with open relish. The devil hasn’t needed to bother with us because we pretty effectively go at each other, frequently offering an unbelieving world a less than winsome witness to the love of God.
The carol of the 12 days of Christmas originated during such a battle. From 1558 until 1829, the Church of England did not allow Roman Catholics to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of the Church. Ironically, there is nothing in the hidden meaning that the Church of England would have found fault with.
Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember. [To fit the number scheme, when you reach number 9, representing the Fruits of the Holy Ghost, the originator combined 6 to make 3, taking the 6 fruits that were similar: the fruit in each parenthesis is the that was not named separately. There are actually Twelve Fruits of the Holy Ghost.]
The “True Love” one hears in the song is not a smitten boy or girlfriend but Jesus Christ, because truly Love was born on Christmas Day. The partridge in the pear tree also represents Him because that bird is willing to sacrifice its life if necessary to protect its young by feigning injury to draw away predators. According to Ann Ball in her book, HANDBOOK OF CATHOLIC SACRAMENTALS: The two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments The three French hens stood for faith, hope, and love.
The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The five golden rings represented the first five books of the Old Testament, which describe man’s fall into sin and the great love of God in sending a Savior. The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation. Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit—–Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy. The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes. Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit—–Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continency [Chastity]. The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments. The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful Apostles. The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.
Stuart promised to somehow work the carol in to today’s liturgy so there you go. We actually used it in the Youth Group this morning for their lesson and as a way to have a checklist of some of the tenets of the Christian faith to study.
The carol also serves as a reminder to us that our faith is built on layers of story and history, a history in which God has been present and acted. God was born into our humanity on Christmas, but as St. John Chrysostym tells us, when God did that, God was honoring the clay that God had earlier used to fashion us. The cautionary bit here is that the danger of settling into the certainty of “finding it” in our faith is to cease to participate in the wonder of being present to God’s continuing work in our world, a work that will inevitably surprise us as it must have surprised the magi to find this remarkable new sort of king in such lowly circumstances.
I don’t think it’s an either or, but a both and. Just as the magi returned home by another route, we leave the stable in Bethlehem each year and begin a new journey of faith ourselves. We set out with a certainty in our hearts that we are beloved by God who made us and honors our clay by being born in us.
But there will be more moments of “well that’s weird” than there will be times when we are certain that we see God. Truth be told, “God sightings” are almost always seen in hindsight. Instead, this image of the magi at the manger can be our icon in the coming days. We set out on a journey of faith, and learn to wonder at where we find God.
Like these magi who went from their observatory to an oratory, we also will have the opportunity each day to marvel at the continued work of God in our world and in our lives, around our dinner tables, and in our workplaces, allowing what we observe to shape how we pray.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park, LPC
January 5, 2020