Imagination as the Art of Truth

Posted: January 3, 2022 in Uncategorized

Mary Oliver gives us a poem titled ‘What Can I Say’ that I think talks about the Art of imagination

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

This brief exploration I have called a sermon is based on the following assumptions: That; ‘Imagination’ is the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses. That ‘Art’ is the primary concern with human creativity and that ‘Truth’ is the state of being real, whatever real means? Already a few words come to mind such as ‘Almost’, ‘as far as’ ‘I think’ ‘for now anyway’. These words highlight the idea of imagination as the way in which we transcend history, culture and time and come to the stories like todays with integrity, openness and confidence that the hermeneutic or our interpretation is an act of imagination and creativity that is the ultimate task of humanity as it participates in creation so to speak. I might say this is the creative spirit sharing in the individuation of God and humanity as Jung might have indicated and as John Caputo introduces as insistence.

The image of the wise men from the East kneeling before the infant child, offering their gifts, has been an inspiring symbol of worship for countless generations. ‘As with gladness men of old…’‘We three kings of orient are…’ The story, itself, has always fascinated people because it links Jesus to the wider world of the orient and to the mysteries of the heavens. Yet it is only the storyteller Matthew who tells for us the story of the Magi who come to visit Jesus.

This story has been richly embellished over the years. The number of the Magi is not given in Matthew’s story. In Christian imagination they have ranged from two to a whole cohort. But in most of nativity art, from earliest times to the present, there are three. Which seems natural that three gifts should have three carriers! And anyway! could all those crib sets be wrong?

This question of numbers may seem to be a bit of trivia reserved for Trivial Pursuits evenings and dining with pious clerics. But the conversation definitely heats up when someone suggests that the number was zero! That the story of the Magi is only ‘legendary’.

We may even remember the names that Christian imagination has given them. I can tell you now they were called: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Astrologers, magicians, philosophers?
Philologists and storytellers hold differing opinions. One tradition has it that the name Gaspar comes from Persian and means something like “treasure keeper” or “treasurer”. Gaspar is often depicted in images as an African with dark skin colour and presents myrrh as a gift. Myrrh is a symbol for humanity and is in some interpretations also associated with the later suffering of Jesus. Melchiorre is a Jewish name and stands for “King of Light”. He has European characteristics and brings gold as a gift. Gold is considered the most precious commodity worthy of a king, the Son of God. The name Balthasar also comes from Hebrew and means “God save his life” or “God will help””. Translations of the name from Ancient Syrian also read “God save the king. It is associated with an Asian origin. He carries incense, which is considered a divine symbol.

However; returning again to our nativity cribs and Christmas cards, there is no suggestion as to the mode of transportation is offered in the Matthew story. Contemporary storyteller and Catholic theologian John Shea, suggests: “The Magi may be dubious as historical facts, but in the Christian tradition they have been credible bearers of rich insights into strange ways of faith…  The story became more a springboard for the imagination than an anchor for sober reflection” (Shea 2003:130).

Indeed, he goes on to further suggest that the Magi of popular poetry and story do not claim to be authentic interpretations of Matthew…  Yet they do try to tell the truth about some of the common patterns of our lives.  They try to make good on the Isaiah promise that is connected with the feast of the Epiphany. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone’.” Our imagination is tempted again to address the question of just what concepts, images and thoughts are these ‘Magi of popular poetry and story’ inviting?

G. K. Chesterton wrote an essay on three modern wise men. In it they journeyed to a city of peace, a new Bethlehem, where they offered their gifts. The first would offer gold suggesting it could buy the pleasures of earth. The second would offer the modern scent of chemistry –
the power to drug the mind, seed the soil, control the population. The third would offer myrrh in the shape of a split atom – the symbol of death for anyone who opposed the ways of peace. When they arrived, they met Joseph, but he refused them entrance. They protested; “What more could we possibly need to assure peace? “We have the means to provide affluence, control nature and destroy enemies?” Joseph whispered in the ear of each individually. They went away sad.  He told them they had forgotten the child.

There is another legend that the Magi were three different ages. Gaspar was a young man.
Balthasar in his middle years. Melchior a senior citizen. When they approached the cave in Bethlehem they first went in one at a time. Melchior found an old man like himself.
They spoke together of memory and gratitude. The middle-aged Balthasar encountered a teacher of his own years. They spoke passionately of leadership and responsibility. When Gaspar entered, a young prophet met him with words of reform and promise. The three met outside the cave and marveled at how each had gone in to see a new-born child, but each
had met someone of his own years.

And Black poet Langston Hughes plays upon the theme of racial unity in “Carol of the Brown King”. “Of the three Wise Men Who came to the King, One was a brown man, So they sing.

“Of the three Wise Men Who followed the star One was a brown king
From afar… And the last verse: “Three Wise Men One dark like me –
Part of His Nativity.”

The imaginative stories around the Magi bring us opportunities across the depth and breadth of interpretation and through imagination offer us an opportunity to share in the remembering and celebrating as well as the concerns which is the season of Epiphany. From the ‘aha’ moments of awakening surprise and amazement to the challenging earthshattering confusions. This change, things are not always as they seem, there is always an alternative, absolutes are elusive.

Thanks to the poets among us, those legendary foreigners from the East can be our spiritual guides today.  For they crossed the boundaries of geography, ethnicity,
class, economics, and religion, to follow their star. We have all been given our own star or, better still, each of us has a “personal legend”. As others have said… we embody God’s dream for the world in a unique and singular manner… “We acknowledge this awesome mystery embodied in every human person, aware that each gives God unique and personal expression” (Morwood 2003:20).

Epiphany calls us to follow that dream into unlikely places and to see that dream in unlikely and ordinary persons. To see our imagination as the serendipitous opportunity to enter the sacred activity of celebrating what it means to be human and loving. Amen.

Morwood, M. 2003.  Praying a New Story. Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Shea, J. 1993.  Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroad

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