Magi MythBusters! (and the real reasons they were late)

Adoration of the MagiAs you probably know, we celebrate the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. Well, unless your only contact with the Christmas story is an annual Christmas pageant in which case you believe they arrived right after the shepherds on Christmas Eve. Yes, we conflate these stories making every creche, not to mention every Christmas Eve pageant, biblically incorrect (shepherds and kings don’t mix — look it up).

But that’s okay — I’m just glad people are hearing the story even if it’s the Cliff’s Notes version. Plus, I sure won’t be the one to tell the pageant director there won’t be any frankincense next year.

While we mark the arrival of the Magi on January 6th, the reality is we don’t actually know when they showed up. In fact it may have been years later assuming they didn’t start traveling from the East (probably modern day Iran) until the birth itself when the star appeared. Camels aren’t exactly built to set land speed records.

Oh, and they weren’t really kings either. More like astrologers or scientists who worshipped and sought truth in a variety of ways. They were respected for their wisdom and spiritual insight but it’s not like they were “real” kings like, say, Herod.

One thing is clear: they never showed up at the manger as popular legend would have it. Matthew’s gospel makes this clear: “And going into the house they [the Magi] saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). Going into the house! Which makes sense since surely the Holy Family didn’t stay in that stable for too long.

By the time the Magi made it to the party, perhaps Jesus was finally sleeping through the night (let’s face it, that first night might have been holy but, as any parent knows, there was surely nothing “silent” about it). Still, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Lousy baby gifts by any standard. I’m sure Mary was really hoping for some diapers, a few onesies, and a binky.

A couple of years ago, just for fun, I started wondering about what kept the three kings from making an on-time arrival. I scoured many sources and came up with the following possibilities:

1. Balthazar took forever doing his hair while Caspar and Melchior sat on their camels and stewed.

2. The holiday traffic on the way into Bethlehem was dreadful.

3. Four words: goats in the road.

4. The Star of Bethlehem (the original GPS) kept saying “recalculating” and they found themselves in a sketchy part of town.

5. Caspar drank way too much water at the first oasis which meant an extra long stop at the Molly Pitcher rest stop.

6. Untying fancy sandals to go through the TSA checkpoint took a long time. Retying them took forever.

7. Due to poor behavior on the part of the other two kings, Melchior had to pull over more than once to yell, “If you don’t stop fighting I’m going to turn this caravan right around!”

8. Stopping at the Holiday Inn slowed them down because, in a precursor to today’s “culture wars,” Balthazar kept insisting the name should be changed to “Christmas Inn.”

9. “I told you that stop at Herod’s house was a waste of time.”

10. They took a vote and decided to take their sweet time getting to the manger so they would have a day all to themselves on the Church calendar.

I’m not sure you’d find any scriptural warrant for this list. But then again you’d find the same basis for assuming the Magi showed up at the manger.

I wish you all a blessed Epiphany. How great that it coincides with Sunday morning this year!

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The 12 Days of Christmas (The “Real” True Meaning)

EpiphanybatmanDuring these Twelve Days of Christmas, you’ll see a number of e-mails about the alleged “meaning” behind the traditional carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” While this is my least favorite Christmas song (shades of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall), there is compelling evidence that this was composed as an underground catechetical ditty. So the Four Calling Birds refer to the four gospels, the Six Geese a-Laying symbolize the six days of creation, and so on.

Of course there’s equally compelling evidence that this is complete baloney. See the supposed meanings and the debunking on Snopes.com.

Whatever you believe, I have actually done some exhaustive research (and by “exhaustive” I mean that I’m still completely exhausted from all the Christmas services), and have uncovered the “real” true meaning behind this carol.

The Twelve Days of Christmas
(the “Real” True Meaning)

A Partridge in a Pear Tree — the rector hiding in a tree from coffee hour complaints

Two Turtle Doves — the two parishioners comprising the parish Peace and Justice Committee

Three French Hens — the three French ladies who sit in the front row every year at Midnight Mass

Four Calling Birds — four members of the Commission on Ministry

Five Gold Rings — five bishops caucusing at the House of Bishops meeting

Six Geese a-Laying — six seminarians laying homiletical eggs in the pulpit

Seven Swans a-Swimming — seven baptisms at the Easter Vigil, stretching the liturgy to three hours

Eight Maids a-Milking — eight members of the hospitality committee bringing non-dairy creamer to coffee hour

Nine Ladies Dancing — the one and only time liturgical dance appeared at St. Swithin’s

Ten Lords a-Leaping — inserted into the new Christmas Pageant from the avant garde director

Eleven Pipers Piping — the eleven funeral last year that included a bag piper playing Amazing Grace at the end

Twelve Drummers Drumming — the “drumming circle” used at the ill-fated “contemporary worship service”


Top Reasons Why the Magi Were So Late

As everyone knows, we celebrate the arrival of the Magi to the manger on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. Well, unless your only contact with the Christmas story is an annual pageant in which case you believe they arrived right after the shepherds on Christmas Eve. Don’t get me started on the way we jumble the story at pageants (the shepherds and wise men never meet!). But I sure won’t be the one to tell the pageant director (and the parents) that there won’t be any frankincense this year.

The reality is that, according to Scripture, the Magi arrived today. Perhaps by now Jesus is sleeping through the night (let’s face it, that first night might have been holy but, as any parent knows, there was surely nothing “silent” about it).

Anyway, this got me wondering about what kept the three kings from making an on-time arrival. I scoured many sources at the Vatican library and came up with the following possibilities:

1. Balthazar took forever doing his hair while Caspar and Melchior sat on their camels and stewed.

2. The holiday traffic on the way into Bethlehem was dreadful.

3. Four words: goats in the road.

4. The Star of Bethlehem (the original GPS) kept saying “recalculating” and they found themselves in a sketchy part of town.

5. Caspar drank way too much water at the first oasis which meant an extra long stop at the Molly Pitcher rest stop.

6. Untying fancy sandals to go through the TSA checkpoint took a long time. Retying them took forever.

7. Due to poor behavior on the part of the other two kings, Melchior had to pull over more than once to yell, “If you don’t stop fighting I’m going to turn this caravan right around!”

8. Stopping at the Holiday Inn slowed them down because, in a precursor to today’s “culture wars,” Balthazar kept insisting the name should be changed to “Christmas Inn.”

9. “I told you that stop at Herod’s house was a waste of time.”

10. They took a vote and decided to take their sweet time getting to the manger so they would have a day all to themselves on the Church calendar.

Have a blessed Epiphany everyone!


Twelfth Night: Party On!

Sure, the Christmas cookies are getting stale and the expiration date on the carton of egg nog is drawing nigh, but this is a great night to throw an impromptu party. What are we celebrating? Twelfth Night of course — the culmination of the Christmas season and the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany. January 6th is the day we commemorate the Magi finally getting their camel-mounted GPS to stop “recalculating” and make it to the manger.

For generations Twelfth Night has been a time for major partying. As early as the fifth century the English and French engaged in Twelfth Night revelry. In Medieval times entire villages would hold what was known as a Feast of Fools. The whole notion plays into the idea of the upside down kingdom where the first are last and the last are first; a place where a king is born in a manger rather than a palace; and where death becomes resurrection. That’s the spiritual undergirding but some might have just seen it as a chance to party (imagine!).

Thus, at these Fools’ Feasts commoners would take the roles of royalty and bishops and those on the upper social spectrum would slum it as commoners. If you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” you get the idea. Of course these festivals eventually went too far and were banned by the Church in the 15th century for their lewd drunkenness and parody of church officials. This didn’t stop them, of course.

Food and drink are still the hallmarks of any Twelfth Night celebration. It’s typical to serve a wassail such as Smoking Bishop and in some traditions the Epiphany King Cake is consumed. In Tudor England there’s evidence that the person who found the bean in the cake on Twelfth Night then ruled the feast as the “Lord of Misrule.” And isn’t that a title you’d love to hold for a night?

In this spirit, I encourage you to invite some folks over this evening. Take your Christmas decorations down, throw back some wassail, and chow down on turkey legs or whatever’s handy. Enjoy!


Christ Heist

Nativity Scene at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Des Plaines, Illinois -- minus the baby Jesus

A few years ago, stealing the baby Jesus from outdoor nativity scenes was all the rage. While I’d personally rather have a six-foot tall Balthazar in my living room, most thieves presumably felt that swiping the Christ child was both more poignant and sacrilegious. I’m not sure what you do with a giant plastic baby wrapped in swaddling clothes but I do hope, for propriety’s sake, that he’s not living in the basement of a fraternity house next to the beer pong table.

In recent years some churches and towns have combated this crime by jabbing GPS tracking devices into their babies Jesi (that’s the plural of Jesus, right?). My take is that if someone needs Jesus in their life that badly, they may as well just keep him. But, then again, I don’t put up a giant nativity scene so I’ve never been a victim of a Jesus-napping.

When I was a seminarian I did my field education work at Trinity Church in Highland Park, Illinois. I had a great experience sitting at the feet of the then-rector Terry White. I did all sorts of things during that time including leading adult education classes, going on pastoral visits, putting together a foosball table, having lunch with the rector, and preaching on occasion.

During Advent that year (1999) someone stole baby Jesus out of the creche set up in Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago. This was shocking because it was the first time anyone had pulled off a Christmas caper on such a grand scale. And the media loved the story! It was all over the news with sensationalized headlines.

I remember preaching the next weekend and happened to toss in the term “Christ Heist.” I’m sure there were profoundly insightful theological references in the sermon but all anyone could talk about was that phrase. Terry never forgot the line and it’s become something of joke between us each Advent.

With this as the subtext, Bishop White tipped me off yesterday that a baby Jesus was stolen in Des Plaines, Illinois, last week. (Yes, Terry went from Highland Park to become Dean of the Cathedral in Kansas City before being elected Bishop of Kentucky — it pays off to stick near me if you want to be on the ecclesiastical fast-track).

According to an article on the Des Plaines Patch website, police were dispatched to St. Martin’s Episcopal Church on December 21st at 10:20 a.m. An unknown offender had taken the baby Jesus from the nativity scene on the front lawn of the church sometime between December 20th at 10 pm and December 21st at 8 am. The Jesus was made out of plaster and had a light blue blanket on it.

So another Christ Heist has taken place in Illinois. I hope you have an alibi but more importantly, if you see the baby Jesus this Christmas season, please return him to Des Plaines.

If I were being snotty I could say this is what they get for putting Jesus into the creche before Christmas Eve. Fortunately I’m still in the Christmas spirit so I’ll keep quiet. At least until Epiphany.


The Night Before Christmas (Christianized)

St. John's -- all dressed up

For the past decade or so I’ve read the following “Christianized” version of The Night Before Christmas at the pageant service on Christmas Eve (the liturgy I affectionately refer to as the “Zoocharist”). I’ve adapted it depending on where I was serving — Old St. Paul’s in Baltimore or All Saints’ in Briarcliff Manor, New York) — so this is its third iteration.

High Altar

I find that kids respond to the rhythm of the verse and by that I mean it briefly lulls them to a more contemplative place amidst the pre-Christmas madness. I use this in lieu of a sermon which, if anyone cares to hear it, will be preached at the later services. Of course the calming effect is short-lived and it doesn’t help parents much when I hand out candy canes (or candy croziers as I call them) after the service.

If any clergy would like to adapt it to their own use, feel free. I’d love to hear about it and look forward to receiving a fine bottle of red wine as an adequate thank you.

Christmas blessings to all and to all a good Christmas Eve night!

The Night Before Christmas
(At St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts)

By the Rev. Tim Schenck – with apologies to Clement C. Moore (or whoever wrote it)

‘Twas the night before Christmas and throughout St. John’s,
The excitement was building, with lots going on.
The candles were placed on the altar with care,
In hopes that baby Jesus soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their pews,
While visions of wise men brought the good news;
Acolytes in their vestments and I in my robes,
The trees were all trimmed, sporting their bows.

When out from the manger arose such a clatter
Angels and shepherds, what could be the matter?
Up in the sky rose a star lit so bright,
Streaming upon us this cold winter’s night.

Horses and donkeys and a bed full of hay,
Mary and Joseph could only just pray.
When, what to our wondering eyes do we see,
But shepherds and wise men upon bended knee.

From off in the distance we hear a great song,
A multitude of angels joins the great throng.
Glory to God in the highest they sing
and on earth peace, goodwill to all things.

On that night, all calm and all bright,
I knew in a moment he was Jesus the Christ.
More glorious than cherubim and seraphim he,
Offering salvation to all who would see.

In swaddling clothes in a manger he lay,
Bringing joy to the world on that first Christmas Day.
Now Mary, now Joseph, now angels on high,
On shepherds on wise men we shall now draw nigh.

As presents are opened and gift-wrap is torn,
Remember the Christ to us who is born.
The little Lord Jesus awake and asleep,
He is the shepherd and we are his sheep.

We worship tonight in this Hingham town,
We praise and adore him all the year ‘round.
May the blessing of God be upon you this night,
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.


“…And all through the church…”

In parishes throughout the world there is a flurry of pre-Christmas Eve activity taking place this week. My own parish, St. John’s in Hingham, Massachusetts, is no different. Here are a few photos that highlight the unsung heroes of the whole operation — the parish administrators and sextons and musicians and altar guild members and assorted volunteers. May your own preparations go swimmingly and, as I constantly remind myself, our Lord’s arrival is not dependent upon whatever we do or fail to get done. Blessings, all.

Extra chairs await the throngs

That's not the way we've always done it!

Junior Choir practicing for the 4 pm "Zoocharist"

The real hero of the whole operation

The Organist -- sick as a dog on 12/22. Feel better Dr. Fred!

Occasionally we force the curate to leave so she can get Christmas shopping done

New 2 pm service added to 4, 7, and 11 pm.

Nowhere to lay their heads, for now

Taking pictures just avoids the inevitable -- I really need to finish that sermon

Please stop bringing us chocolate! (but we're open to good scotch)

How many bulletins to print? Check last year then add some.

How did the Magi do it without red poinsettias?

Parking detail ready for action

Semi-threatening notes from the parish administrator

Hundreds of "Candy Croziers" ready for the kids