The desire of all nations
Readings: Haggai 2: 1-7; Matthew 2: 1-12 (King James Version)
The Christian faith was global from the start. Magi – wise men, astrologers – came from the east led by the star. They may have come from Babylonia or Persia – modern-day Iraq or Iran. As foreigners, speaking a different language, from a quite different culture, they knelt before this Jewish boy, and worshipped him. They saw in him a child who was the saviour of all people, whose kingdom is for all people, whose human flesh is the humanity of all people.
Many people have seen the Old Testament prophet Haggai’s vision fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Written in Hebrew, it promises that God will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come, and so the temple will be filled with glory. Not all scholars agree that this passage prefigures the coming of the Messiah, but hymn-writers can’t resist the turn of phrase. We’ve already sung, in the words of the English Charles Wesley:
Hope of all the earth thou art,
dear desire of every nation.
And our concluding hymn, by the Scotsman James Montgomery, gives the following instruction:
Wise men, leave your contemplations;
brighter visions beam afar;
seek the great Desire of nations;
ye have seen his natal star.
This is a rich theme in a global University with students and staff from around 140 countries, with over 45% of our students and staff coming from outside the UK. As Chaplain, I am hugely aware of the global nature of the University and of those who are involved with the Chaplaincy. I also love travelling, exploring cultures across the planet. That combination of interests led to an exhibition of photographs called Sacred Spaces I put on as part of the Pittenweem Arts Festival in August, and to this year’s theme in the Advent Calendar which is being sent daily to the Chaplaincy mailing list, featuring a picture I’ve taken from somewhere across the world which leads us in reflecting on the themes of Advent and Christmas – from St Andrews to Samarkand, from Bologna to Bali. Today’s image on the cover of the order of service I took in Petra, Jordan, the astonishing rose-pink city of the Nabateans. It may not quite be magi in the image, but it is people on camels from the east. (If you don’t get these emails and want them, just let me know.)
This service of readings and music deepens this theme. We worship today with words spoken or translated from ten languages: English, Hebrew, Polish, German, Latin, Welsh, French, Greek, Gaelic and Spanish, reflecting an even broader range of cultures. And that sense of Jesus’ universality is found not only in the range of languages and cultures, but in their content. Rilke’s poem speaks of the pregnant Mary’s abundance, her largess, the child in her womb spreading out around her. The Latin hymn Puer nobis nascitur which we sang earlier describes Christ as the Lord of every nation. And in the final poem today by Borges, we will hear
Y le será entregado el orbe entero
And the whole world will be given up to him.
And as we sing, read, listen and pray in different tongues and cultures, we demonstrate that Jesus was born for all. His ministry was to fellow-Jews but also to the Samaritan woman he met at the well of Jacob, to the Syro-Phoenician woman who begged him to heal her daughter, to the Roman Centurion whose daughter had died. And the book of Acts reveals the first Christians sharing their faith with Greeks, Romans, Ethiopians and all the nations gathered at Pentecost.
Only last month, I saw something of the global reach of the Christian faith. I was conducting a wedding of two St Andrews graduates in Bangalore, south India. The groom is from an Indian Orthodox Christian family, originally from the state of Kerala. This church traces its origins in India to Thomas, one of the twelve disciples who, they are convinced, travelled to India to spread his faith in the resurrected Jesus. Although I wore a kilt, and conducted the wedding according to Church of Scotland rites, I was conscious that my own church and culture have come much more recently to worship Jesus than these Christian people of India.
One final thought. This universality is not for the sake of domination. Jesus is not interested in becoming the Emperor of the World. He is no Caesar. He does not rule as Herod ruled. Instead, Christ asks us to have him reign in our hearts, regardless of our language and culture, and then to transform our society wherever we find ourselves. Waldo Williams, translated from the Welsh by Rowan Williams, puts this beautifully:
Will not the shepherd come to fetch us in our desert,
gathering us in to give birth again, weaving us into one
in a song heard in the sky over Bethlehem?
Woven into one, we take our place worshipping the desire of all nations. And then we are born too, born to witness to God’s forgiveness, his love and his desire for all nations – for justice, for peace, for the flourishing of the life of all creation.