The myths recorded at the end of the first century about the birth of Jesus are a series of parables designed by their creators to challenge the oppressed followers of the teachings of Jesus to free themselves from the bondage of empire. One of the parables which make up this nativity befitting a great human, is the Parable of the Wise Ones. Wise Ones, sages from the East followed the star of their dreams seeking the one who would fulfill the hopes and dreams of many for leader who would embody the WISDOM necessary to lead the people out of bondage. Listen to the way the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Matthew recorded the Parable of the Wise Ones: “Now Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod; suddenly sages from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the one born ruler of the Judeans? For we have seen his star at its ascent and have come to reverence him.’ When King Herod heard this, he was shaken, and all Jerusalem with him; then calling together the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah would be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, by no means are the least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Then Herod secretly called for the sages and learned from them the time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go, search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word so that I may also go and reverence him.” When they had heard the king, they left, and there suddenly was the star that they had seen at is ascent going before them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they rejoiced; their joy was exuberant. On entering the house, they say the child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and reverenced him. Then, opening their treasure, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2:1-12)
The gospel-storyteller weaves a parable for generations which draws us into the miracle of birth in the midst of challenging of times. The Parable of the Wise Ones is carefully designed to inspire communities of listeners who knew all too well the trials and tribulations which threaten every baby born into the turmoil of oppression and violence. In the parable, Jesus is portrayed as a child who will grow into a great liberator who challenges not only his own generation, but generations to come to live fully, no matter what the obstacles to freedom may be. The Parable of the Wise Ones, like all parables if we let them, when liberated from the misperceptions of history, has the uncanny ability to challenge us to embrace new ways of seeing reality. Ways which will liberate us from our fears, liberate us from oppression, and empower us to resist violence. The power of a parable’s ability to liberate generations comes from the hope which parables inspire.
The Parable of the Sages manages to challenge even the wisest among us to see beyond the challenges, beyond the threats of violence, beyond even the end of the gospel-storyteller’s story, which we all know is coming, for not even death can diminish the joy of new birth. For who among us, when the star stops over the place where the baby lay, does not feel the hope rising in us, when the sages, knowing full well the dangers surrounding the birth, “When they saw that the star had stopped, they rejoiced and their joy was exuberant.”
Their joy was exuberant! Joy the very emotion which inspires hope! Considering the many challenges, the dangers, toils, and snares through which we have come these past two years, is it any wonder that we find ourselves longing to feel some joy? Joy to the world! Yes please! We need a little joy in order to hope for liberation in this new year! What I wouldn’t give for a star to stop over the place where all the answers lie waiting to be discovered, waiting to free us, so that we can abandon our fear and live life abundantly, here, and now. That’s the thing about parables, you can’t take them too literally. Staring up into the heavens searching for a star to lead us, won’t bring us the joy we need to inspire the hope we need to free us from our fear, so that the promise of abundant life can be born again and again, and again.
I had almost given up hope of experiencing joy this Christmas until I was reminded of the gift of joy given by an unlikely creator of hope. I was watching one of those endless end of the year news programs. You know the kind of show that tries to sum it all up with a few segments which remind us of the momentous, almost forgotten, happenings of the year gone by. (click here to view the news segment) Well, it turns out that 2020, in addition to being an “annus horribilis” that’s the Queen’s Latin for “disastrous or unfortunate year,” 2020 was the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. Needless to say, the planned celebrations were put on hold, and they remained on hold all of last year. Nevertheless, the news program decided to run their tribute to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as part of their year-end windup. Over the years, I’ve learned very little about Beethoven’s life other than the fact that this epic creator of music, lost his hearing and continued to compose music which is beyond compare. What I learned in the ever-so brief snippet, which is characteristic of so much news programming, is that in addition to losing his hearing in his late-twenties, Beethoven suffered from chronic lead poisoning, he may have had colitis, he suffered fevers and headaches which lasted for months. His health challenges became so unbearable that Beethoven entertained the idea of suicide. Choosing instead to live for his art, Beethoven contended with the political oppression, wars, and rumors of wars of his time. Living in Vienna, which was primarily a police state at the time, Beethoven chose to set to music the Friedrich Schiller poem Ode to Joy. As the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy may be the most famous revolutionary call to freedom ever created. Says conductor Marin Alsop, “it’s about coming to terms with challenge, strife, and struggle and deciding it is worth it.”
Beethoven tapped into the dejection of his fellow citizens to create a gift designed to keep the idea of freedom alive. The writing of the Ninth Symphony by a man who was deaf may just be the greatest act of faith in the reality of life’s worth! For Beethoven gave birth to the Ninth Symphony using his mind’s ear. Listen with your own mind’s ear and I suspect the power of Beethoven’s creation will still be able to stir joy in you. Marin Alsop insists that Beethoven’s loss of hearing may have liberated him from self-censorship. “He kept moving forward in terms of experimentation, in terms of taking risks.” With the Ode to Joy, Beethoven reminded his world, and continues to remind our world, that “even in the darkest of times there is potential for joy.”
I wonder what the numerus losses our world has experienced in the past two years may have liberated us from. What joys may we discover in this liberation? In the freedom from the way things were? In the discovery of stars to guide us? In the joy we allow ourselves to take in each new birth.
These 2020s may not be the roaring twenties of a bygone age but consider for a moment the enormity of the blessings we enjoy in this century. All around us there is potential for joy. The kind of joy which inspires hope, the kind of hope that creates abundant life. If we let it, 2022 has the potential to be our ode to joy, for we have all we need to create abundant life here and now. Not just for ourselves, but for all our neighbours. Yes, we do need to come to terms with our challenges, we need to understand the oppressive nature of the empires we serve, for only then will we be able to fully see life’s tremendous worth.
Friends, at your birth a star shone brightly in the sky and the sages who visited you, they rejoiced, and indeed their joy was exuberant. The wise ones in your life have given you many gifts. May their joy and your giftedness work wonders in you. For we have challenges to meet. Now is the time to claim the freedom of life without fear which is the joy of abundant life. May this new year bring you great joy! May this new year be the beginning of your ode to joy! Your gift to the world! Happy New Year! Happy New Year! Amen!