Friday, January 1, 2016

What Do You Seek? Power, Authority and Character (Reflections on Matthew 2.1-12)

What Do You Seek?  Power, Authority and Character
Reflections on Matthew 2.1-12

The Epiphany of Our Lord
3 January 2016

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

            When Paula and I were married, we were given the gift of a Nativity set.  It’s made in the style of the Hispanic and Indigenous pottery of the American Southwest.  The faces of each figure also reflect the peoples of the Southwest where Paula and I grew up.

            When our children were younger, we would set the Nativity up in the living room of our house.  Mary, Joseph, the animals and the shepherds would patiently await during Advent for the arrival of the Christ Child on Christmas Eve.  On that night, as far away as possible from the living room, the Magi would make their first appearance.

            Each night between Christmas and Epiphany the Magi would travel, in stages, to the living room where Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child awaited them.  Each of our children would choose one of the Magi and we would move ever so closer.  As we moved through the house, we sang,

O star of wonder, star of night,
star with royal beauty bright;
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

            Today we celebrate, a few days early, the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem.  If we follow the chronology of Matthew’s story, then they have been on the road to Bethlehem for two years.  The Magi had embarked on a journey to find the Child who was born to be ‘King of the Jews’, the herald of God’s promised reign of justice and peace.  Each of the Magi brought a symbolic gift, gifts that can be understood to represent the stages in our own journeys of self-discovery.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again
          Have you ever experienced a child’s first attempt to exert control over her or his life?  It’s that moment when he or she first says ‘No’ and will not cooperate in whatever the parent or caregiver is trying to do with and for the child.  Even though it can be very frustrating to the adult, it is a vital stage in the development of the child.  He or she has come to the awareness of self-identity and independence.

            Another word for control is power.  Every human being has a legitimate need for some power in her or his life.  When I visit people in long-term care situations, one of the frequent laments I hear is the loss of control over one’s body, one’s routines, one’s freedom of choice.  One of my pastoral responsibilities in such situations is to help people identify where they do have control and how to exercise this control.

            But control has a darker side.  Some of us become so fixed on control that we sacrifice our relationships with other people.  We focus on acquiring money, property, material goods and the secrets that give us power over other people.  We use these acquisitions to bully and manipulate others.  It’s the other ‘golden rule’:  the one who has the gold rules.

            If we are fortunate enough to have wise mentors and caring communities, we may find ourselves mired in this important but only preliminary stage of maturity.

Frankincense to offer have I:  incense owns a Deity nigh
        Have you ever stood for election, whether in school, in a social society or in some other organization?  If you have, then you have sought authority.  Authority is power used within the boundaries of mutual relationships of respect and self-giving.  Sometimes the boundaries are set by terms of office, other times by the nature of the relationships or by the bonds of affection.  Those who understand the difference between authority and power choose persuasion rather than coercion when faced with conflict or competing expectations.

            Authority, like incense, flows through a community and, if used wisely and carefully, sweetens the atmosphere with subtle perfume.  After a while, the perfume fades away and another aroma may take its place.  Authority knows its own time and place and does not seek to go beyond its proper limits.

            But authority can be exercised by people who are drawn by the lure of power, ‘the iron fist in a velvet glove’.  Some people seek to exercise roles for which they are not suited in terms of gifts and temperament.  Like incompetent or corrupt officials, we recognize their authority even if we seek ways to limit them or to remove them from office. 

            To know the difference between power and authority is a necessary part of growing up.  But it is the last gift of the Magi that is key to living in the fullness of the stature of Christ.

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom

           In the ancient world myrrh, the resin from a small thorny tree native to the Middle East, had many uses:  perfume, incense and medication.  Many ancient peoples used an oil of myrrh to anoint the sick and the bodies of the dead.  As an oil it seeps into the body through the skin and blends with the body’s own chemistry.  Someone anointed with myrrh brings that aroma with them into any space they visit and transform it.

            For me myrrh represents character.  Character, in the old-fashioned meaning of the word, is that quality of an individual that determines how he or she will use power and exercise authority.  Character is the one thing that endures even after power vanishes and authority passes.

            On Thursday of this past week Bishop Jim Cruickshank, the retired and last Bishop of Cariboo, died.  For many people, lay and ordained, Jim was the embodiment of character.  As a bishop of the church, Jim had power as well as authority.  In that he was no different from any other bishop.  What distinguished Jim from so many other leaders was his character.  He embodied these words from the letter to the Colossians:

            As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. [1]

I hope that, when I grow up, it is this character embodied in Jim that I reach.

            Jim was a fellow traveller with us on the same road as was travelled by the Magi.  Like the Magi we seek the One who shall show us how to live and become truly who we meant to be.  Like the Magi we bring gifts that represent the stages of our journey:  the gold of power, the frankincense of authority and the myrrh of character.  We bring them before the Child who shows us how to accept the power that is rightfully ours and to exercise it within the limits of mutual and respectful relationships with God, our neighbours and ourselves.  But more importantly this Child, in his life, in his teaching and in the example of his death, shows us the character which is ours if we are willing to walk this road, stage by stage, sometimes two steps forward and one step back, but always walking towards the light.

O star of wonder, star of night,
star with royal beauty bright;
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

[1] Colossians 3.12-17 (New Revised Standard Version).

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