Feast of the Epiphany – January 6, 2019
The prophecy of Isaiah is revealed in Bethlehem. The early church saw today’s celebration as a revelation: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The kings come. The three kings from foreign lands come to Bethlehem. The New Testament Greek name for them is “magoi” or, as we would say, “magi,” which means “fortune tellers” or “wizards.”[i] (The English word, “magician,” comes from the Greek, magi.) The Greek name magi also includes astrologers, and so it’s no wonder that the magi reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew it was significant, and followed it. What was this star? There’s been endless speculation down through the centuries, some of it based on the Zodiac, some of it based on astronomy.[ii]The Gospel according to Matthew makes neither explanation nor apology for revealing that the wise men had followed a star.
I found inspiration recently, in of all things, The Edicts of Ashoka, ancient inscriptions written by Emperor Ashoka of India in the third century before the common era. They represent some of the oldest examples we have of what today we might call interfaith dialogue. For the most part, Emperor Ashoka is waxing eloquent on a newly arrived faith tradition called “Buddhism.” However, he also spends some time speaking about other religious traditions. Here’s some of what he wrote:
“The beloved of the gods… [he referred to himself in the third person that way] values this – that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause… it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others… The beloved of the gods… desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions… And the fruit of this is that one’s own religion grows…”
With these words, Emperor Ashoka provides one of our first references to religious pluralism, suggesting a relationship beyond peaceful coexistence, towards finding essential wisdom in traditions not one’s own, and perhaps finding an underlying truth common to all traditions. Whatever his precise intention, the relationship between diverse faith traditions and their various truth claims has remained an important issue throughout our history.
Two students asked a rabbi, “Why does God command us to put the word of God on our hearts. Why did God not say to put God’s word in our hearts?” The rabbi responded, “We are commanded to place the word of God on our hearts because our hearts are closed and the word of God cannot get in. So God commands us to place the word of God on our hearts. And there it sits and waits for the day when our hearts will be broken. When they are broken, then the word of God will fall gently inside.” This parable was shared early on in the FSJ pilgrimage to the Holy Land by one of our leaders, and this pilgrimage indeed broke open my heart. We talk of God-moments in our lives; these were God-days.
I’ve just had a meeting with a group of people interested in forming a Boston area chapter of Kids4Peace. Kids4Peace (K4P) is an organization that began a few years ago in Israel/Palestine at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. SSJE’s work with St. George’s as chaplains for many courses brought us into contact with the K4P program and its founder, Dr. Henry Carse
K4P is a fascinating undertaking. Kids from Jerusalem 10-12 years of age representing the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam gather regularly for activities and conversations designed to foster better understanding and genuine mutual regard. In the summer, the Jerusalem kids come to America for camp experiences with kids of the same age. As a promotional brochure puts it: “By celebrating the differences and similarities between their cultures and faith traditions, these children are taking a step toward global understanding and peace.”