Wisdom and Awe- Matthew 2: 1-12
(January 3, 2020-Epiphany)
I invite you to conjure for a moment in your mind images of wise people who have entered your life. What is it about these people that make them wise? What sets them apart from those you don’t consider so wise? It’s only natural to consider such a question on a day when Matthew brings us the story of the Magi.
In Matthew’s gospel, the wise ones help us to understand the truth of Jesus’ kingship over the predominantly Jewish members of Matthew’s community. Matthew reaches back into his own scripture to associate Jesus with that other great Jewish king, Solomon, who received visits by scholars and nobility from the farthest reaches of the known world. That’s the historical context. But, I want to focus on the story itself, as it raises some interesting questions about the nature of wisdom and the spiritual life.
The wise ones, students of the heavens were the scientists of their day, such as science was at the time. However, there is more to these wise ones than just knowledge, something more than knowledge was required to perceive the presence of God in a stable or else Matthew would have had a multitude in the story to witness Jesus’ birth. That “something more” is wisdom.
For me one of the hallmarks of wisdom is to see things as they really are—to get beyond appearances. Wisdom is grounded in reality. Listen to some of this folk wisdom I came across; “A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” “Ambition is a good servant but a bad master.” You listen to wise words and they resonate as true because they are grounded in reality, in experience. The wise people in my life glean from life what life has given them to learn. Wise people see life as their teacher, so they pay attention to life; they listen, they watch, they reflect. There is a certain amount of humility involved in wisdom. The more privileged you are, the more deference and advantages you have as a result of your skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, class and wealth the more humility will be required. When life doesn’t humble you of it’s own accord you have to be intentional about doing so if you hope to attain wisdom.
Spiritual wisdom also requires humility, because humility is what opens the door to something deeper and more profound. The late Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way; “Humanity will not perish from lack of information, but only from want of appreciation… the beginning of wisdom is awe.” The beginning of wisdom is awe. Awe re-defines us, awe re-positions us within creation, awe removes us out from the centre, awe is an acknowledgement that creation does not revolve around us, there is something else at the centre, a mystery, and the best we can do is stand in awe before it. Spiritual wisdom flows from grounding ourselves in this reality.
This was affirmed for me this week as I sat down with my family to watch the new Pixar movie, Soul. To go into the whole plot would take too long, so let me just say that one of it’s main story lines revolves around the character of “22”. 22 is a soul that has been preparing to inhabit a body on earth for a long time without much success. In fact, 22 is actively resisting life not being able to find a purpose for living. You might say 22 is a lost soul. Through a series of misadventures and mischief, 22 winds up on earth inhabiting the body of Joe, a frustrated music teacher and aspiring professional jazz musician. As 22 navigates this new reality on Earth they begin to conceive of life’s purpose differently. 22 is impacted by Joe’s passion and joy for Jazz, by a barber’s fulfillment in helping people look their best and being a part of customer’s lives, by a mother’s acceptance of her son’s dreams, by the friendship of two women sharing dating misadventures, by a father swinging his daughter by the arms. 22’s life learning culminates in a moment of epiphany as they are overcome with awe looking up at a sun dappled maple tree in autumn and watching and eventually holding a maple key, with it’s potential for so much life, flutter down and land in their hand. Something lifts and something emerges in 22. Life is no longer a burden. It dawns on 22 that living isn’t about succeeding at a singular purpose, fulfilling a role competently, living is it’s own reward if one simply stops to notice. In the words of Heschel, humanity perishes from want of appreciation… the beginning of wisdom is awe.
Matthew had his own purposes for including the wise ones in the story of Jesus’ birth, but inherent in the story is an insight about the nature of wisdom. God comes into the world in the form of a baby born in a feeding trough in an out of the way village, but only a few perceive it, only a few see what God is doing. The wise ones see, they perceive what is happening. I think it begins with their willingness to let go of their own certainty (the enemy of wisdom) and wonder at the meaning of a star. They’re willing to let the heavens evoke awe in them. They’re willing to place mystery at the centre of creation, and they? They are simply travelers who journey toward the mystery, led by wonder and awe. In the end, they see things as they really are—a God who inhabits creation, a God who takes on flesh.
What brings you to wonder? What fills you with awe? What makes you go “wow”? I have an image on my computer desktop of our galaxy, I look at it, and when I realize that our solar system, not our planet, but our solar system is a small dot on the outer edge and that there are billions of galaxies I’m struck silent. As a minister I am privileged to be let into so many lives and to be witness to people’s grace and courage in the face of adversity, disability and death, to acts of compassion and generosity done anonymously, to lives dedicated to serving others, it’s an awesome privilege! Awe leads us to wisdom. Awe puts us in a position where we can perceive things as they are–the sacredness of reality, the truth of incarnation, the truth of a God who inhabits creation and takes on flesh. This is spiritual wisdom gleaned from story and gleaned from life.
The wisdom of incarnation comes in seeing things as they really are, seeing the spark of the Divine beneath the layers of deception; to see the hurting child in the violent adult, to discern a vocation when the world just wants you to get a job, to be true to self when the world wants you to conform, to see in those different than you a sibling, to see in the trees and the water the same life that courses in your own body, to see the dignity of the human spirit when power and fear want to subsume us to being mere cogs in an economic and political machine..
The humbler we are, the more we practice awe, the more we will see the world as it really is, the more we will see the reality of the incarnation and the wiser we will become. We will discover what Matthew discovered, what his wise ones discovered—God right here, in the midst of ordinary lives, bringing hope, peace, joy and love. May we be blessed in this way.