A one-time work colleague of mine, who has been a friend ever since, made a retreat some time ago, at the end of which she heard an inner voice saying, “Simplify everything”. She has done, and, because she and her husband have a connection with the Franciscan order, she’s been constantly motivated to simplify everything ever since. To me, Debby’s life – which she divides between her church ministry, several music groups, an environmental project, local politics and a double allotment – still seems pretty complicated. To Debby, it’s all an expression of her call to simplicity. And I’ve no doubt she’s got that right. Complication can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder. What Debby exemplifies to me is simplicity of heart.
It’s easy, and sometimes wise, to say, “Keep it simple!” That certainly gets said almost as a slogan when the faith and worship of the Church is being discussed. There’s nothing wrong with that, but, as with all slogans, we need to think carefully what we mean if we say it. Some people, looking at our celebration of the holy Eucharist in church today, with as much ceremony as we can manage in the present circumstances, and the procession to the crib that will take place in a few minutes, might say, “There’s nothing simple about that! You’re talking about a baby who was born into poverty, and here you are with embroidery and incense and processions – Why doesn’t the Church get rid of all that clutter and keep it simple?”
Now on the face of it, it may also seem that these wise men, whose visit to the baby Jesus we celebrate today, haven’t much to do with simplicity. What did St Luke tell us about the shepherds, on Christmas morning? They heard the angel’s message, they arrived at the manger the very same night that the holy child was born, they went back, and they passed on the good news. Simple, and an example to us all. By contrast, what does St Matthew tell us today about the wise men? They found the child after a challenging journey; they were inspired by a heavenly message that wasn’t in words and had to be checked out on the ground, with risky political implications; they delivered three presents that still need some explaining, and they disappeared out of the story, travelling by another route. No wonder the church calendar commemorates their visit twelve days on from Christmas Day itself. The whole thing is complicated enough to take more time – especially as Herod’s massacre isn’t confined to new-born babies but includes toddlers as well. Complicated, at least on the face of it – but, I’d suggest, not altogether complicated, and also an example to us all. In among these complications, there is simplicity of heart.
There’s a lot that St Matthew doesn’t tell us about the wise men, and so, because we do enjoy a bit of a mystery, we can easily complicate things still further. To start with, how many wise men were there? Matthew doesn’t say; three gifts suggests three givers, but we don’t know. What sort of wise men? The word Matthew uses – Magoi – could cover all kinds of what we, using a related word, might describe as Magic – but as they evidently studied the stars, they probably specialised in astrology – which in those days combined what we now know as scientific astronomical observation with elements of what we now, I hope, recognise as the sinister kind of fortune-telling that goes by the name of astrology in our own time. (While I was researching this sermon I came upon a website, claiming to be run by a society of astrologers, who said you could use their astrology to make a fortune on the stockmarket – I wonder how many vulnerable people are being led to their ruin by trying that? To return) Where did these wise men come from? “The East” sounds exciting and exotic but it’s not very precise – maybe Persian lands afar? Well, maybe – in that case they might well belong to the ancient religious tradition called Zoroastrianism, practised by the Parsees to this day. But by the middle ages, Christians who studied the scriptures had decided that the wise men were three kings (the gifts were precious, and Psalm 72 mentions kings bringing gifts), they were of three different ages (young, middle-aged, and old), they came from the three continents then known to Europeans (Europe, Asia and Africa), and they were called Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior. All traditions with something to say to us, passed on by our ancestors in the faith, inspiring wonderful works of art, and worth exploring and honouring in their own right, as we shall do when we go home with our Epiphany chalk – but, on the face of it, the traditions tend towards still more complication rather than towards clarity and simplicity. To say nothing of the question, still actively debated, of what the wise men saw in the sky, and how it led them on the last stage of their journey to Bethlehem and then – stopped.
But, for this morning – I’d still suggest that the wise men are potentially an example to us all, and certainly to the very many people who find that their journey of faith isn’t simple, or doesn’t seem simple all the time. The wise men’s journey has complications, but what they bring to it, and on it, isn’t complicated at all: they bring what they know, what they are, and what they have. They bring their knowledge of the stars – how else would they recognise a star that wasn’t on their map? They bring their professional identity, something they have trained in and developed over perhaps half a lifetime or more, and the determination and perseverance and sometimes risk-taking that goes with doing that; and they bring their precious, perhaps rather elitist, gifts – and with these things they come to worship. That’s pretty comprehensive, but it’s not complicated. It’s the kind of simplicity that one poet describes as “simplicity costing not less than everything”.
These wise men don’t set out knowing all the answers. Even the question they ask when they reach Jerusalem means more than they know it does – “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” For a start, it means things to King Herod that it doesn’t mean to them, and further, I wonder what they would have thought if they’d returned to Jerusalem 30 years later and seen “King of the Jews” written up above a dying man on a cross? Their precious gifts also mean something to us that the wise men were probably aware of only dimly, if at all. The lyrics we sing this morning (or, in church, can’t sing) find in the gifts a meaning that the Church has recognised for at least 1800 years: Gold for a king, incense because he was God, myrrh because he was to die. But once they find out where they’re going, they rejoice, and they get there; and they sum up their journey, and their hopes, and what they know and are and have, in their act of homage, as they prostrate themselves before this apparently very ordinary child. Complications or no complications, they offer their worship in simplicity of heart. How else could wise men worship a child?
On the other hand, there can be a kind of apparent simplicity that seems to go with knowing all the answers, and it can actually look very like a dead end. When the wise men reached Jerusalem, there were people already there who did know all the answers; Simple! yes, the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem of Judaea, that’s what the Bible says and here’s the proof text to show it. Well, that information proved useful. But I wonder if it occurred to those who knew all the answers to stop and ask themselves why that might matter to them at that moment, what sort of a governor might be coming out of Bethlehem, and what they ought to do about it? The shepherds had said in the middle of the night, “Let’s go now”, the wise men set out from Herod’s court towards Bethlehem with joy. And meanwhile, the experts on the sacred writings to whom it was all quite simple – who lived in Jerusalem, which is about five miles from Bethlehem – didn’t take the risk of going to investigate. Would they have been willing, as the wise men were, to pursue a mystery, to cast down their knowledge, their professional identity, their hopes, their gifts, their very selves, before a totally undistinguished baby boy? It doesn’t sound like it.
To return to something I said earlier: it’s true – and quite simple – that to have a church, to mount an act of Christian worship, you need, simply: bread, wine, water, a Bible and people. So where do the incense and the embroidery and the processions – and the music and the pictures – come in? They come in just where the wise men come in. To start where there’s an obvious overlap, particularly today: incense has been recognised for thousands of years as a sign of the presence of God and of our prayer and worship. Incense was known to be for God, and there were plenty of Christians who died rather than burn it in front of a statue of a Roman emperor. Of course it isn’t indispensable but it isn’t just a bit of clutter either – it’s a visible, smellable way of saying that God is God and that we are in his presence. Embroidery and processions – not just clutter either: a way of reminding ourselves that we are in the presence of royalty, and that our whole life is a journey towards the King of Kings. The wise men will approve; they understand that now. Bell-ringing: a skill requiring effort and tenacity and, in some cases, a talent for mathematics – we could probably keep it simple and announce the service with a hooter, but let’s consider the hundred and twenty years of self-giving that this church has experienced from those who paid for the tower, hung the bells, recast them and went on ringing them, generation after generation. Weren’t they, too, wise men – and women? Art and music: things that skilled people practise with dedication and years of hard work. The fact that not everyone can perform challenging music doesn’t mean that challenging music is just complicated clutter and churches shouldn’t have it: when we give singers and instrumentalists, particularly young ones, a chance to learn it and to make it part of their worship, we give them an opportunity that the wise men would understand – an opportunity to offer to God something demanding, something of themselves, while offering to the rest of us an experience of the beauty of holiness as we listen and reflect. All these apparently complicated aspects of worship can help us to put into practice something very simple that we can usefully lay to heart: in our life-long journey towards God we don’t always achieve instant results, nor are we even always clear about the immediate direction of travel, but if we persevere as the wise men did, in simplicity of heart, in self-giving and reverence, our worship will prepare us to join finally in the worship of heaven – “Where we need no star to guide, Where no clouds His glory hide.”
Children, and grown-ups too: when the priest says the prayer of consecration, listen as he reminds us of our Lord’s own words and actions which are right at the centre of our worship here and now. “This is My Body” sounds simple, but probably only the Lord Himself really understands exactly what He Himself is doing at this altar, and exactly what He is inviting us to to become part of as we come to him. But we can still come to him in simplicity, bringing our complicated selves, just as the wise men came to him when he was a baby. When he invites us to bring him ourselves, He doesn’t say “Understand this”. He just says, “Do this”.