Matthew 2:1-12 (MSG)
For five unusual days in September, a queue stretched ten miles across London. Through the night, in the cold, clutching cups of tea, befriending the strangers who waited alongside them, 250,000 people waited to view the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II. Some queued out of grief, some from curiosity; some came because waiting patiently in line for more than 24 hours seemed like the most British act possible, a kind of patriotic performance art.
At last, one by one, they entered Westminster Hall. A livestream showed them looking around, wide-eyed, at the majestic architecture and the glittering crown jewels atop the casket. They took turns filing forward to stand before the catafalque. Each one paused for a moment in silence, and then, in a gesture more medieval than modern, in unrehearsed sincerity and earnest awkwardness, they bowed or curtsied.
When Liddy Barlow was writing about this outpouring of emotion and respect for the Queen in her Christian Century reflection on our scripture from Matthew for Epiphany, she noted how different this scene was from her own experience. She said, “I grew up in New England, where the American Revolution feels like family history. Even 245 years later, we pride ourselves on our role in rejecting monarchy. Curtsies to the queen were definitely not part of my formation. And Congregationalists don’t bow to anything else, either. We’ll stand up for hymns, but we make no other liturgical gestures: no genuflection, no kneeling.”
My religious background and formation as an American Baptist were also void of genuflecting or kneeling. That lack of kneeling in my life may be part of the reason why I was so deeply moved on Monday night while I was watching the Bills play the Bengals. By the grace of God and the amazingly quick thinking of team trainers and medical personnel, safety Damar Hamlin was immediately tended to when he collapsed on the field.
It was amazing to me, watching this unfold on tv from my own home, how I could almost feel a collective in-taking of breath across this whole community. I could almost feel this community hold its breath for all those long, long minutes when Damar was receiving CPR.
And then, just as the ambulance left the field to take Damar to the emergency room, I watched in awe as the entire Buffalo Bills organization, in one collective motion, knelt on the field in prayer. I have no idea if some hesitated in that moment or stopped to think about how symbolic that action of kneeling was, because all I could see was a mass of people kneeling on the field.
Our story today in the gospel of Matthew suggests that the Magi, on finally reaching the home of Jesus, “fell down and worshiped him.” Or, more precisely, according to The Message, “Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him.” Overcome, Queen Elizabeth’s people genuflected before her casket. Overcome, Damar Hamlin’s teammates knelt and prayed.
These erudite astrologers had searched the heavens, gathered precious gifts, and made a long journey. They had searched for a king in the sophisticated capital city. Then they were redirected to Bethlehem. They found a little village, a tired young mom, and a boy in diapers, playing with blocks. Whether or not they sported the elaborate robes and glittering crowns that they often wear in art—probably not, as
that wouldn’t have been the most practical travel garb—it must have been a strange sight: grown adults, overcome, and kneeling before a toddler.
And yet they bowed without hesitation, even with exceeding joy. Their deference was genuine. This was not the first king they’d met this week: the Magi had just been in Herod’s court, but there is no indication that they paid him homage. Instead, their reverence was reserved for this child, the one they had been seeking, the one the world had been waiting for. They recognized him immediately. Like the patient people in line at Westminster Hall, the circumstance demanded this unfamiliar, even awkward gesture: it was right and just. It was right when the football teams knelt on the field after Damar collapsed.
I suppose, if I had to, I could figure out how to curtsy before royalty. I suppose I could drop to my knees in prayer and thanksgiving. Even with so little experience of kneeling, and with our strong American pride, there’s still somehow a longing to bow down. I hope the example of the Magi shows us that we don’t need to kneel before those in formal power; we don’t need to honor their sneering corruption and murderous envy. But we also don’t need to dispense with deference altogether. With exceeding joy, we can bow before the presence of the Divine wherever it is found.
Liddy Barlow ended her Christian Century reflection this way: “Rumi, perhaps a compatriot of the Magi we think about today, says that, “there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” And so, in our own ways, with bent knees or with humbled spirits, we can bow before bread, before babies, before people who are poor. We can pay homage to the vulnerable and marginalized. We can kneel before an ocean wave, a tree in full color, a honeybee. We can prostrate before signs of God’s love and evidence of God’s work. One by one, overcoming our awkwardness and self-consciousness, in exceeding joy, we can honor what is good and holy. In our own ways, we curtsy (or kneel) still.”
May it be so for us. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale, January 8, 2023