The beginning of a New Year might be as good a time as any to renew our faith or to find it somehow made new with some new revelation or ‘epiphany’. Of course, I can’t make that happen – it comes upon most of us as a kind of surprise mostly. But I offer something today – and who knows…?
I must have taken many exams in my time and I don’t remember much about many of them, but I do remember that once, when I was preparing for the Oxbridge entrance exam, I was asked to prepare an answer to the question ’What is the difference between faith and superstition?’. I realised quite quickly that many people might reply that faith is just the name we give the superstition we happen to choose (you know – I have a faith while you have a superstition). Now, I think it’s very common for all sorts of people to discard Christianity as just one of many possible outdated and irrelevant superstitions. I’m increasingly struck by how that has become a new kind of normal in the culture we now inhabit.
But when I was faced with this question myself I found a different answer – and it’s one I stand by still. I think that having a faith is quite different – in fact it’s almost you might say the opposite – of keeping to a superstition…
A superstition – I suggest – is something that invites you to somehow control the world or at least what happens to you. So, lots of superstitions are about doing something to bring good things to yourself or those you love. Superstition is like casting spells – it features in a world where good things or bad things can happen and you can do things to bring them about. So, we touch wood or we put silver coins in the Christmas pudding, or we avoid walking under the ladder. We do something to manipulate the world around us – to fend off evil or to invite good. And sometimes I think we treat our faith a bit like this – say a prayer and good things will happen, light a candle and someone you love will be blessed, sprinkle the holy water and someone will be healed, go to church for years and you will stay fit. But faith is really something quite different. Faith is something that trusts that however badly our fortune turns out, or whatever happens around us, God is with us. Faith trusts that even if you get persecuted for it, it’s worth giving yourself to the good and generous cause. Faith gives up looking for good luck or fortune for itself, but instead gives itself to making the world more joyful and beautiful and kind and good for others. Faith gives away that desire for all our wishes to be granted and instead stands alongside those to whom the worst has happened. Faith prays not for our own pains to be eased but actually for our eyes to be opened to the sufferings of others. There are moments in all our lives when we discover that faith is not about the buttons we press to get ourselves a better life, but is about living better the life we and others have now got.
There are wonderful stories that teach us this too. And one of them, I think, is the story of the Magi. But before I get to that one I want to remind you of another story that comes from the East – a story we’ve met many times in our lives, whether through the local panto or Disney or the 1,001 nights. It’s the story of Aladdin.
It’s a fascinating story and you can meet it in many forms. In one version, the story starts with an old couple who live in the souk – they have no children. But then three visitors arrive – three magicians. They give the couple a magic apple and nine months later they have a son… whom they call Aladdin. When he is grown into a lad he encounters a magician who offers to take him to find a magic lantern in a cave. He tells him that when he enters the cave he will find the walls lined with jewels – but that he mustn’t be distracted by them – he must just keep searching for the lamp. Aladdin finds it… but he cannot resist temptation and is distracted by the jewels – he ends up trapped in the cave for three days….and he discovers in the end that the three visitors to his parents had only granted their wish for a child because they needed a miraculous child to find the lamp…. the lamp that is the key to fortune, granting wishes for the one who owns it. Many adventures follow for Aladdin once he escapes from the cave with the magic lamp – but the lamp that makes wishes come true brings as much trouble and danger as it brings anything good.
So – a charming story of visiting magicians from strange and distant places, a miraculous birth, temptations, and even being trapped for three days in a cave… the parallels are astonishing. And in both the Aladdin story and in the Gospel story the magicians seem so promising but following their arrival there is death, trickery, naivety, mistaken assumptions and false hopes.
In Matthew’s Gospel – the magi seem lovely if you stop reading at verse 12, but of course their presumption that the child would be found in the palace unleashes the slaughter of the children and then just a page turn on – there is the story of Jesus being tempted – rather as Aladdin is tempted… Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread – to solve his problems by miraculous deeds (we all know about the centuries long search for something that could turn ordinary things into gold). He is tempted to risk and escape death by calling on angels) – myrhh is the symbol of death. And he is tempted to seek the world by worshipping the devil – frankincense is the symbol of worship… Jesus is tempted – and his temptations seem to echo those three gifts brought by the magicians from the East.
Even the Disney version of the story of Aladdin tells us that magic and superstition go wrong – and that it can be so dangerous to try to control the world we live in. It tells us that even if your wishes do come true for a while you may find that life is not what you hoped for. Even the story of Aladdin teaches us that love is more important than wealth, and that goodness and beauty, truth and love and joy can be found even in the tattered remains of what magic cannot solve or find or mend or transform. This fairy tale, and the Gospel even more, show us that light shines not always from magic lanterns or from a king’s palace, but in a family from a small town, from a baby at risk, from a child rescued from the greed and lust for power of the mighty ones.
It is I think tragic, and a terrible kind of mistake, that many people think that the Christian faith might actually be about a kind of magic – that God might be a kind of power to summon like a genie to put all your troubles right, to transform the lives of faithful individuals so that they are removed from the ordinary stuff of human life – our escape from the souk. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Christian story tells not of a God who rescues a few lucky souls, not of a God who can be summoned by prayer to grant a few of the faithful their wishes, but of a God who empties Godself and shares with us all this life in the souk, life in all its human reality – a God who is born, who lives with us and dies with us – a God who unleashes not a fierce-some magic or a genie-like power which overwhelms us – as it overwhelmed the child Aladdin – but who comes to share our powerlessness, who holds a fragile light in the dark, and who in so doing redeems us all.
In the Gospel story of the magi, Matthew tells a tale of the overcoming of magic, of the God who refuses the temptations to escape the souk with the gift of gold, but who persists in living with us a human life and showing us how, even in embracing it and its pain, life can have meaning and significance.
The story goes that some people who were once not well versed in Latin used to think that medieval priests were saying ‘hocus pocus’ over the communion cup. They were mishearing ‘hoc est corpus meum’ – and thought that the words of the prayers were like magic words, as though faith is a kind of magic, as though if you swallow the wine or say the prayers you will find fortune. But faith is not like that, the chalice is not like a magic lamp, and we are not like Aladdin – fooled by a genie, beguiled like children into thinking that it would be good to be granted all our wishes. Faith is not for those who want to make our wishes come true – but for those who ask God to shape our desires to what is good and holy for all. To be faithful is to let go of your own ego and to embrace the love of God. It is to forgo any kind of escape route from the perils of life at the expense of others, but instead to stand with the suffering. It is to embrace a trust that this is God’s world and not mine, and that all things will be well, in God’s good time.
And to attain this kind of faith, the faith revealed as superstition falls to dust, is of course, the greatest gift of all. And the news of the God who comes, not like a genie to give us just a few dangerous magic wishes, but as one who lives with us in the souk – is the best news of all. Thanks be to God. Amen.