I want to thank Reverend Grace and all of you for inviting me to speak with you today. Let me tell you a little about myself. I am Fr. Yanchy Lacska and I am an ordained priest in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as well as an ordained Interfaith minister. I am also a member of the Lindisfarne Community, an ecumenical new-monastic community in the Anglo-Celtic tradition. I am wearing the habit of the community. The first time my young grandsons saw me wearing this habit they said in surprise, “Grampa! You’re a Jedi.” Besides being a priest and a Jedi, I am also a retired hospital chaplain and a psychologist emeritus.
Today, I want to talk to you about three things:
First, I want to reminisce a little about my childhood Christmases.
Second, I want to talk about the wise men in today’s gospel reading and how the celebration and meaning of Christmas developed differently in the Eastern Church than it did in the Western Church.
Third, I want to offer you an idea that may give you a another perspective on giving and receiving gifts at Christmas.
So let me begin by telling you about my childhood Christmases. When I was a child, Christmas in our family was, as the song says, that most wonderful time of the year.
I was always excited when we bought a Christmas tree and brought it home. My father would take out his old army trunk filled with colored lights, ornaments and the nativity set and we would decorate the tree. On Christmas Eve, we would attend midnight mass as a family. Then, while we were sleeping, Santa mysteriously came and left presents under our tree.
But Christmas wasn’t over after December 25th. For our family, Christmas ended on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the three wise men, as was my father’s tradition growing up in a small village in Hungary. We opened gifts from each other and my dad made a delicious Hungarian crepe dessert filled with jam and sweet cottage cheese called palacsintas.
I remember my father telling us the story of how in his home village, three young boys would be picked each Epiphany to dress up as the three magi. They wore decorated pointy hats, and walked from house to house holding up a star on a stick. The village priest followed blessing each home by sprinkling the doorways with holy water, and then writing the letters: C+M+B (for the names of the three Magi: Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar) + the current year above the door with blessed chalk.
Who were these wise men from the East Matthew mentioned in his gospel and celebrated on the Epiphany? There is scholarly debate about whether they were a mythical invention of Matthew, who wrote about them to reinforce the belief that Jesus was the messiah, or whether they really existed and the story based on historical fact. If the story is real, the magi would have beeb members of the priestly caste of the Zoroastrian religion of Persia (Babylon). We know that these magi were highly educated and skilled in astronomy.
Because of the Hebrew captivity and exile in Babylon, the magi would have been well versed in the Jewish Scriptures, including the predictions of the coming of an anointed child or messiah. It was not only the Hebrew prophets who spoke of the coming of a messiah or a special anointed one. The Persian prophet Zoroaster predicted that an anointed one would be born and that a star would signal his birth. Zoroaster’s description is very similar to that of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, which is a part of the liturgical Advent readings: “A Child will be born to us. And he will be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty Messenger, Prince of Peace.” The sudden appearance of a brilliant star would have signaled to the magi, the prophesied birth of this anointed child.
The story of the magi following the star and bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to honor the Christ Child is a beloved part of the Christmas story along with singing angels and shepherds. But while this story is sweet, what is really important for many Western Evangelical Christians, is not the Christmas story, but Jesus dying on the cross to save us from our sins.
For Eastern Christianity the story is broader and deeper. Jesus did not save us only by his death as a sacrifice to a rigid justice-seeking God. His whole life was important to our salvation: His birth, his teaching and healing ministry, his death, and his resurrection.
In this Eastern Christian view, salvation is not a one time event in our lives that occurs when we accept Jesus as a personal savior or when we are baptized. Salvation is understood as the ongoing, lifelong (and maybe after life is this body) process. Salvation is understood in it original Hebrew and Greek meaning healing and wholeness. Salvation has the same root as the salve we put on a wound. Salvation is process of becoming more and more united with God. St. Athanasius wrote in the third century, “God became human so that humans can become like god.”
Franciscan priest and popular author, Fr Richard Rohr, also understands salvation this way. He wrote, “Somehow, to live in conscious union with God, is what it means to be saved.” Even Jesus, quoting the psalms, said, “You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High.” (John 10:34 - Psalm 82:6) Jesus also said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly parent is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
What on earth does it mean to say “you are gods or to be perfect?” Doesn’t our faith teach that there is only one God, in three Persons? How can human beings be gods? In Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christianity, this concept is nothing new or shocking. It is called theosis. Theosis is the understanding that human beings, who are mythically created in the Divine Image and Likeness, can be truly united with God, and so become like God to such a degree that as St Paul wrote, “we participate in the divine nature,” and as Jesus prayed in John’s gospel, “Just as you (God) are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us.”
C. S. Lewis understood this concept and expressed it in his book Mere Christianity. Lewis wrote: “The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He said that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him. He will make us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creatures, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine.” (1952, p.174)
The word Jesus used that is usually translated as perfect, more accurately means complete, undivided, and whole.
In Matthew’s gospel story, the magi opened their treasure chests, and offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Treasure chests is appropriate, because these would have been very expensive gifts. But these were more than expensive gifts traditionally given to royalty. They would have also been understood by the magi as mystical symbols of wholeness.
Gold represents the mind. Like gold needs to be refined to separate it from base minerals, so must our minds be purified in order to hear the guidance of Holy Wisdom.
Frankincense represents our spirit or emotion. Frankincense has been used for millennia during religious ceremonies and is still the major ingredient in church incense. Recent research at Johns Hopkins University found that smelling frankincense induces feelings of peace and relaxation and can even relieve depression and anxiety. So frankincense helps us become calm and attuned to the holy or sacred during ceremony or meditation.
Myrrh represents the body. Myrrh was used to embalm dead bodies in ancient times. But it was also an ingredient in ancient medicine. In fact, myrrh is still used in medicines today. During his crucifixion, Jesus was offered wine with myrrh to ease his pain. So myrrh represents healing and life after death.
These gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh then are symbols of mind, body and spirit, symbols of wholeness, of salvation. This wholeness not only focuses on our personal wellbeing, or on a restoration of our unity with God. It includes the Divine One’s desire to heal and make all of creation the realm of heaven, the place and time when all things in heaven and earth are in sacred unity. Indeed, one of the titles or names for God in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, is Abwoon, which literally means Sacred Unity.
Maybe the story of Christmas is more than a story only about the infant born in Bethlehem ~ more than about magi following a star and giving gifts. Maybe it is the story about which St. Paul wrote, “God has chosen to make known the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” ~ Colossians 1:27 Medieval teacher and mystic, Meister Eckhart once said: ‘What good is it that Christ was born in Bethlehem if he is not born now in your heart?’
I want to leave you with a challenge. On some night this week, when all is dark and quiet, sit in front of your Christmas tree with only the tree lights on, or if your tree is gone, light a candle and sip a glass of wine or tea and think about the light of the Star that guided the magi to the infant in a manger, the light that still guides us. Think of the gifts you gave and received at Christmas in a new light. See each gift you gave as recognition and of honoring the Christ who resides in that person, and each gift you received as honoring the Christ in you. Reflect on how you are on the path of becoming whole and one with God, one with each other, and one with all of creation. And then you will truly have a happy new year.