The Very Reverend John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 5th January 2007
Wise men came from the East to worship Jesus. Wayside pulpits have played with such thoughts in various ways. Wise men come to Jesus. Foolish men stay at home? But they miss a subtlety in biblical attitudes to wisdom. Whilst the wisdom that comes from God is admired, the wisdom for example of Solomon, wise men are sometimes given pretty short shrift in the bible. It is the folly, if you like - the simplicity, the humility, of God's people that is truly admired.
Consider the story of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was troubled by his dreams and summoned the wise men of his court, the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers and the Chaldeans, to tell the king his dreams. None of them could do it. Only Daniel, the man of God, to whom was revealed the mystery in a vision of the night, was able to tell the king the interpretation of his dreams.
Consider the position of the wise men of Israel in the time of Jesus, the scribes and the Pharisees, who constantly missed the point Jesus was making. They were good and careful men, religious men, but they relied on detailed adherence to the letter of the law and killed its spirit. Jesus excoriated them for their hypocrisy.
Consider Paul's comments on wisdom in the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. "Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?" Paul is clear that God chose "what is foolish in the world to shame the wise". "Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth." He knew how to make friends and influence people.
All of this might make it odd that today's feast seems to hold up to us for admiration the wise men who saw his star in the East and came to worship Jesus. Who they were, how they were alerted to the birth of Jesus and why they really came to see him are questions the story in St Matthew's gospel leaves hanging in the air. Centuries of Christian legend and accretion have tried to answer the questions. There were three of them. Who knows? They were kings. Who knows? One was black. Who knows? They were called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Who knows? All we know is that they saw his star, they were thought to be wise and they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In truth I am not clear that St Matthew's Gospel does ask us to admire these wise men. What is important about them is not their wisdom. Although their searching of the heavens helped lead them to spot the star and their inquisitiveness helped lead them to follow it, we are to see what brought them to the point where they, people from the East, people standing quite outside the tradition of God's people Israel, came to recognise and worship Jesus, by the gifts they brought him, as King, God and Innocent Victim, as being none other than the hand of God through the leading of a Star.
Wisdom is not a word often used in relation to contemporary society. We are not taught to admire wise men and women. Nor, come to that, are intellectuals much respected in England, far more so in French contemporary culture. English contemporary culture tends to admire the novel, the sensational, celebrity, however tawdry, and individual judgement, however ill-informed. And yet there are powerful voices, whether of commentators in the media or of academics, whose influence over society's attitudes and the development of national policy is often considerable. These are the equivalents of wise men and women in our culture, in our age; perhaps they are not admired but they are often heeded. When they appear to agree, they can exert great pressure on the beliefs and attitudes of those with less developed opinions or personalities.
The influence of these commentators flourishes in a culture which tends to prize more highly the power to develop opinions and form individual judgements than the ability to understand and explore received wisdom and revealed truth. A Catholic culture prizes above all the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church, and a Protestant culture prizes above all Holy Scripture, the teaching authority of the Bible. A culture once but no longer Catholic which has lost respect for the teaching authority of the Church, if it was also once but is no longer truly Protestant and has lost respect for the teaching authority of the Bible, will only now prize individual opinions and individual judgements, however ill-informed they might be. We are left believing what we like, and everyone's opinion being equally valuable, in a culture where any attempt to come to a common understanding, or to discover truth through dialogue, is regarded as not only impossible but also senseless.
This is the culture in which we live and move and have our being, in which we today celebrate the obeisance of the wise men to Jesus. How can we live in our culture if we accept the invitation to come with the wise men humbly to the Christ child and do obeisance? There is a classic Anglican answer which would understand the discovery of religious truth as deriving from an interplay between tradition, the received authority of the Church over the years, scripture, the received authority of the Bible as interpreted, and reason, the application of personal experience and intelligent thought. We could be more confident in our proclamation of the Anglican way.
Our culture desperately needs to engage seriously with questions of ultimate meaning and purpose, with the questions with which religion engages above all, and to do so in a way that is truly attentive to the teaching authority of the Church and of Scripture. At the moment, too many people are trying to locate themselves spiritually and morally as they wander without maps in a meaningless desert. The wise men were guided through the desert by the Star until it came to stand over the place where the young child was. They came in to worship him. We are amongst those who have followed that Star and have come into the house to worship. As we do so, we should commit ourselves not only to developing our own map reading skills, but also to doing all we can to develop a wider culture that relies less on individual satellite navigation and more on the guidance of the Star.