I had a surprising dream this week about the Magi visiting the Christ child. Ok, it’s too early in the season; this E-pistle should wait until Epiphany.
But who can time dreams? Obviously, I can’t! I’d rather my off-hours and sleep weren’t interrupted or possessed by work-related imaginings! Why not have a winterful of off-season night visions — trips to the shore beaches, working in the garden, and long, sunny bike trips?
I guess, for me Christmas dreams are an occupational hazard, almost a busman’s holiday. At Old First– where barnyard work like getting the Donkey to walk for the 5 p.m. service on Christmas Eve makes up more than the average minister’s Advent — maybe they are to be expected. Painting the new nativity figures probably added more fuel to my unconscious preoccupations!
But I like that it was a dream about ancient dreams and their dreamers. It’s like looking at yourself in a mirror looking at someone else looking in a mirror. You can see into reflections into infinity.
The Magi’s dreams found them where they were, moved them to someplace new, and left them never the same again. May our dreams do likewise!
Three disparate people dream what to make of a bright star in the sky. I wonder why knowing the meaning of the star, but not actually going to see the child, wasn’t enough? Did the wisdom of their night visions include whatever propelled each of them to set out from home and family… to travel a great distance to encounter the child?
And their dreams kept up with them, or kept moving them along. En route, dreams of the paths they were to follow that they might come upon one another. And an additional dream of warning: when they came upon another King, the dream that told them neither to believe nor trust Herod.
So maybe my dream wasn’t just the bothersome overflow of over-packed days? Maybe it was more– insight and motivation? Perhaps, I should hope for more night vision — to open me up, to unsettle and move me, to change me?
My dream was startling because it told the story of the Magi differently than I’d imagined it before. In a couple of different ways, but most surprisingly, in one major detail… other than I’d ever understood.
The vignette that ran through my sleeping conscious was all very realistic– depicted in full technicolor with a lot of camera work, all the detail and angles, and a series of close-ups, like a contemporary film at the Ritz.
The wise ones were shown to the stable by the harried, distracted Innkeeper. The innkeeper — never seen, only heard offscreen– prattled on about how many guests and all the work of keeping these hungry people happy. Amidst all his other words, he did ask, “Why in the world would foreign Kings come so far for the birth of a peasant child?” But he didn’t pause for an answer; perhaps he didn’t want to listen for the response? He was too busy rattling off his to-do list. Then off he scuttled before the camera ever saw him, or he ever saw Jesus.
The Kings, on the other hand, hardly said anything. If the Innkeeper could not hear anyone else for all his own words, they were heard loudly because they hardly had anything to say. Just a few words, softly spoken.
They barely greeted the bewildered Mary and Joseph.
They never explained who they were.
Or why they had come.
“May we?” as they appeared in all their finery at the door to the stable.
“The child!”, beholding Mary cradling the Christ wrapped in homespun cloth. You could hear the “aha” in their voices.
“Our gifts,” when they gently set down the traveling cases of gold, frankincense and myrrh on the straw before the manger.
And then, at least in my dream, after they came, they saw and they gifted, they left, almost immediately.
After traveling all that distance — and in the modes of transportation available to them, their trip must have taken significant time — they only passed a few words and a short time in the presence of the child, and then they were gone. “Making a trip that long,” I always thought — almost without thinking — “they must have spent some days or weeks or even months visiting once they arrived.”
As I woke, remembering the dream and wondering what it meant, it first occurred to me: it made sense to leave quickly. They knew Herod was “over-interested” in this child. That kings don’t welcome another King with a greater claim into their own backyards. And that their presence would be clearly noticeable. In a Kingdom with its own over-developed NSA apparatus, they would make the child easily trackable. And more vulnerable, easier for Herod to locate and harm.
But the brevity of the Wise Ones’ visit also promises us something else. Something important.
They came over great time and distance to visit a child they had never seen before, and, presumably, were never to see again. And yet they only remained in his presence a few minutes. Somehow, in “a moment,” gazing on the Christ, something changed for them forever. Just a glimpse of Jesus was enough. The Wise Ones were able to recognize something. To trust they had been seen, perhaps in ways that they’d never seen before. Or to see themselves and God as they never had before.
In his face, they could see how Christ mysteriously belonged — and always would — to them, even if they were never again to be with him. Or maybe it was he who recognized them: their eyes met, and they remembered what they always knew– in that glimpse, that no matter what, they were his.
My “aha” or take-away was that it’s ok if our religious lives are built on only a few moments of first-hand, personal religious experience, like the glimpse the wise ones got of Jesus. Mystics may live in a state always connected to God. But for the rest of us — most of us — the spiritual connection is spottier, probably more off again than on.
We might hope, even long for a constant closeness — being able always to see and hear angel choirs in the heavens. We imagine how much richer and deeper life would be if we were more spiritually perceptive. Moving through our days basking in the glow of God’s presence. Hearing that still small voice gently, consistently whispering in our ear, coaching us with the right answers, especially when we need them most. Noticing the Spirit rustling our hair or caressing us as she blows across our skin.
If only we were more spiritually attuned… could live in a heightened awareness all the time. So we might understand deeply. Trust completely. Do better. Forgive more easily. Love more fully…
But that’s not our reality. Instead, we’re lucky to get a passing glimpse. Mostly it’s through the glass darkly. Only, every once in a while, an intimation here or there.
But it’s enough, beloved, to have our moment or two that have taken our breath away. Connection that once caused one suddenly to stop like one has never been still before. Or one’s heart to race until it felt like one’s body could hardly contain it. Even momentary recognition — of our true selves and all we could be, or of all God is for us — can be sufficient.
We hope for more, even sharper, stirring spiritual experiences. But often they don’t come. Rather our highpoint fades into a return to ordinary daily existence, back to our previously scheduled lives.
Or does it? The question is, do we let our sacred moments lead us, change us and form us? Or because they were passing, do we doubt, deny and dismiss them?
Beloved, so much of our ecclesial lives and religious striving — even around our high holy days– can be off-target and extraneous, even misguided or misleading — irrelevant details, distractions or detours that actually make it harder to really see and hear, feel and believe.
But all you need is one sacred moment, when against all odds, even against our best efforts to mess and mix ourselves up, God breaks through to our muddled consciousness. When your eyes met the Christ child’s. Or your ear actually heard a heavenly note. When your heart was stirred and your Spirit undeniably felt. Suddenly we know more than we can explain.
Because something new is created when the connection happens. Something rare, that we may never experience or know immediately again. A moment of recognition in which something strange and precious is born into your life.
There will be other times, far less illuminating, inspiring and faithful. But there was that moment, or if you are very lucky, a few moments to treasure… a reality so much bigger than our own.
The Magi knew they had to go back home to their ordinary lives. But they were wise: they knew that their one glimpse of their precious Savior was life-changing. It could send them back to the life they had known, but in a holy, different way. To live thereafter BECAUSE they’d had their sacred moment.
Beloved, remember your moments of connection in his presence. Live into them. Live them out. Even if you never again experience or know such a sight or sound or feeling as the Christ so close. Like the Magi, who turned around and went back home. But by another way. Because they were never the same. Amen.