Reflections

“I just have three questions...”

Eleanor Deckert
“I just have three questions...”

I am in a restaurant in Oxford, England celebrating a successful opera production of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" which, like a prequel to Matthew's account, imagines the Magi asking a family for shelter while on their journey to Bethlehem in search of the Christ Child.

The two musical directors and their young children have invited me to dinner in appreciation of the volunteer effort I put into making costumes. They are two professors who specialize in the fascinating crossroads where history, philosophy and religion intersect. Also present are the parents of the student who played Amahl.

To my right, the daughter of the musical directors has just been asked, "Did you enjoy the show?"

I have never seen a more angel-like child, her long, wavy, blond hair framing her rosy cheeks and cupid's bow lips, her slender fingers holding pencil poised to continue writing "Chapter One" on the page her mother has provided.

"I just have three questions..." Her earnest face shows a charming mixture of innocence and intelligence, authenticity and curiosity. "How do we know if our religion is fake? And, how did it spread all over the world? And, why did the Kings bring such strange gifts? ... Mary and Joseph couldn't use them." Her voice trails off, half expecting the adults to pass over her query.

Who am I to answer? There are experts present!

My mind spins, swiftly avoiding a trite "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" answer to her religion question. I instantly recall the maps in the back of my study Bible showing Paul's Missionary travels spreading the Gospel across Europe and the pictures in my history book showing French, Portuguese and Spanish explorers bringing their Catholic priests across the ocean, while Puritans settled on the shores of New England. And as for the gifts, recent feminist comics showing the Three Wise Women arriving at the stable with clean diapers, a casserole and a bottle of wine entirely eclipse and make ridiculous the sacred treasures the Magi carried in their hands.

The adults are silent. So, I offer what I know from experience answering similar questions from the Sunday School children I have taught for the last 45 years.

"Did you know that one of the names of our religion is ‘Good News’ because we believe that God is Love and has forgiveness for all people. That is why the Good News has travelled all over the world. People like to share and tell about something that is good."

I see a light in the little girl's eyes. She is listening. The adults are, too.

"As for the gifts. You are right. They are not practical things that the baby needed. They are symbols. They have meaning." I wonder if she knows about the symbolic meaning of the flag, the crown, valentines, and "XO" for a hug and a kiss?

"These three kings bowed down to the baby and gave him gold, like a crown, which meant that Jesus is the King of kings. The frankincense is used by a priest in worship and meant that Jesus is God... to be worshipped. The myrrh is used in burial and it meant that Jesus is a sacrifice, would die and be buried, and rise again. The Wise Men knew these things about Jesus, even before he was born."

And then, just in case I have said more than she can remember, I add, "It is good to ask questions. Your three questions are very important: How do we know if our religion is fake? How did it spread all over the world? Why did the three kings bring these strange gifts? You keep asking these questions. You keep searching until you find answers that make sense to you."

Now I am home, and I can search for the references that answer her questions from Scripture. Other facts can be ascertained from archaeology, historic documents and theological teachings. Her questions are the same things we all struggle with until we find both knowledge and belief.

Jesus was a young man when he read this passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 and first announced the Good News. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release of the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."

The last words Jesus spoke to his disciples are recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, commanding them to travel and spread the message of his teaching, love and forgiveness. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

Regarding the gifts, this was written about 1000 years before Jesus was born.

"May the kings... bring him gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!" Psalm 72:10-11. And this prophecy came true after he was born, "And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh." Matthew 2:11

Keep asking questions!