Christmas holds a special place in my heart because it was my dad’s favorite holiday, and because it’s a time of year for many family traditions and rituals to be played out. Every family has their own sacred, quirky, idiosyncratic rituals that frustrate and delight. Traditions that only need to make sense to the family who owns and plays them out each year. And of course we may start a few new ones with each generation. It’s the awe and wonder of myth.
Myths are traditional stories told in every culture, oftentimes with much of the historical basis lost over time. Myths are our collective story of what our lives mean and how to thrive. Jean Houston, scholar, author and philosopher active in the “human potentials movement” says, “Myths are more than old tales; they are ‘codes and roads and maps.’ Where we wind up on life’s journey depends on the map we carry with us.”
Myths generally are born out of a vivid imagination, with life experience as the catalyst. And while they aren’t necessarily rational or pragmatic, they are imbued with a deeper meaning that give value to life. What makes myths so powerful, so enduring, is that they speak to something greater and unknown. Our myths point to another world that lives parallel to our human experience. They bring to life archetypes, which are collectively inherited, ancient, unconscious ideas, patterns of thought and images that resonate deeply within the human family.Our religious myths point to another world that lives parallel to our human experience. Click To Tweet
Magi: An Archetype of Christmas
When we tap into these archetypes, these universal truths unhindered by time, culture and space, we are taking the mystery of our stories and bringing them into manifest form. We bring the invisible world into reality. And so it is with Christmas. It is so much more than a single day, December 25th, and it’s not just something that happened in a manger 2,000 years ago. What’s important about it is that we bring the past into our present and into our future. We must ask ourselves what it means for us now to take seriously what these stories meant for them – then. What’s the piece of truth in our Christmas myth, and is there a gift Christmas still brings me?
There are a multitude of gifts inherent in Christmas, and this year I find myself drawn to three, as represented by the gifts of the magi. As the writer of the Gospel of Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth, there are wise men, not kings, from the East, who bring three gifts to baby Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh (the writer of the Gospel of Luke does not include them in his version). Matthew does not tell us there are three men, only that there are three gifts. Later Christian tradition called them kings and gave them the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.
There is very little to say about the wise men, since it’s generally accepted they aren’t historical figures. The magi are pagan figures searching the heavenly stars for a sign, for confirmation of where to find the new birth they seek to adore. Yet they are characters the writer of Matthew found important enough to include in his parable of Jesus’ birth. Again, how we understand and interpret this story matters. In looking through a 1st century Jewish lens, I ask myself who the writer of Matthew imagined them to be?
Marcus Borg, internationally known biblical and Jesus scholar, tells us, “They are magi (translated into English as “wise men”), a word from which we get “magician.” But they were not magicians in the modern sense of the word. Rather, the word refers to a kind of religious figure: magi had wisdom by being in touch with another reality. Magi were people with a more than earthly wisdom. In the Gospel, the gifts these wise men bring are gold, frankincense and myrrh – rare and precious in Jesus’ world and reserved for those highly esteemed. Today I ask myself, what rare and precious gifts do I bring and is there any life I don’t consider as highly esteemed?
We celebrate the birth of a man each Christmas because he was a master teacher whose primary teaching was “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” My question then becomes “am I creating heaven here on earth?” Or in my own lexicon, “Am I treasuring and expressing the beauty of my human experience? Do I understand and teach Truth principles that have transformed my life? Am I extending my hand to the person next to me, so they know the goodness that they are, that they belong and matter?” Heaven is a consciousness we come from, not a destination, so the gifts of the magi become a consciousness made up of three eternal windows that create heaven on earth – beauty, truth and goodness.Heaven is a consciousness we come from, made up of three eternal windows – beauty, truth and goodness. Click To Tweet
Heaven on Earth – Beauty, Truth and Goodness
Plato was the first philosopher to write about beauty, truth and goodness, although they have been the focus of inspiration and knowledge for much longer. Philosopher Peter Kreeft refers to them as “God’s three great prophets in the human soul.” Beauty is the way of the heart, it is about feeling the sweetness of life. Truth is about discerning what is real in my experience, it is the way of knowledge, or the head. Goodness is our understanding of being with each other, with all life, it is our hands in service to and for the divine.
Meister Eckart, 13th century German theologian and mystic of the Dominican order, believed in the birth of the Word in our soul – meaning God is always birthing through us, therefore making each of us the “only-begotten son of God.” He goes on to say, “Whoever shall hear the eternal Wisdom of the Father must be within, must be one and must be at home. Then he can hear the eternal Wisdom of the Father.” Is this not another way for us to acknowledge and BE those gifts of the magi?
- Am I treasuring and expressing the beauty of my human experience?
- To “be within,” is to be in the practice of giving and receiving beauty. Beauty is another word for what we might understand as universal love, or the impetus of desire, that ceaseless, restless creative energy that drives us to create, to be connected to all life, to see a fleeting moment of perfection in all things.
- Do I understand and teach Truth principles that have transformed my life?
- To “be one” is to be in the practice of giving and receiving Truth, where we discern that is most real in our day to day lives. Truth allows us to hold a double vision: to see things as they really are in moments of our deep suffering, while also illuminating the fullness of life, love, power and God within us all. In so doing, we awaken to our own capacity to transform our lives, while simultaneously drawing attention to what another already has, and prompt them to use the fullness of who and what they are to be the expression of the divine in their human form.
- Am I extending my hand to the person next to me, so they know the goodness that they are, that they belong and matter?
- To “be at home” is to be in the practice of giving and receiving goodness, or the practice of service. When I imagine what the writer of Matthew was thinking and why he has these wise men from other nations go in search of a child who is called the prince of peace, and the light of the world, in order to kneel before him, I can’t help but wonder when was the last time I thought about another person with such devotion. When have I left the comfort of my home, followed a star, carrying priceless gifts, and knelt before them to see the Christ of their being?
We are each wise men, we each seek to learn how the world works and to use that knowledge to enhance our quality of life. The wise one understands the link between the unseen world of the divine and our world here on earth, and moves between those worlds, bringing the ideas of love, compassion, joy, peace, life, healing and hope into manifest form. We are drawn to the light of the divine and our real purpose is fulfilled in the way we move back and forth between those two planes of existence. In the Sufi tradition “where the two seas meet” – human and divine – is where the true meaning of our existence is revealed.
The Star Leads Me Home
Beauty, truth and goodness are my Star of Bethlehem, leading me home, leading me to the light. There’s something about the life of Jesus that we are drawn to, there’s something about the life of this man that is here to offer me in terms of a life lesson. I am mining the Christmas story and imagining what the writer had in mind, and why he put the wise men into the story, and the part that stops me, that literally takes my breath away, is that that they are seeking the light and kneeling before it to pay homage. That is how I look at these ideals, as something for me to kneel down before, a metaphorical surrender to my own light, and to the light of each life in our world.
The Christ energy is born into my world when I kneel and receive these gifts. And then I am responsible for giving them back to the world. The life of Jesus is exactly this, and the gifts of the magi are calling us each to step into this story, to own it for ourselves. The Christmas story heralds the birth of a person who loved selflessly, with all his heart, mind and strength, and any person who loves in this way is fully alive with beauty, truth and goodness, the gifts of the magi.