Witches, owls and magicians from the east

Preached on January 6, 2015 (Feast of the Epiphany), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle.

A little while ago I enjoyed a rare encounter with an elusive creature. Sometimes I wake up around 4:00 a.m., and I can tell I won’t be able to get back to sleep, so I just get up and go for a long, dark, quiet walk around the crown of Queen Anne. This was one of those nights. I had just crossed the large ravine on the northeast side of the hill, and I heard a rustling directly behind me. Then I saw—and in my memory I felt it, too—a large presence soaring around my right side, turning in front of me, and flying over my left shoulder.

I turned to see what it was, and met the dry gaze of a brown owl, perched on a tree behind me. The owl looked down at me for a long moment, and then looked away. Fortunately, I kept my head and didn’t approach or speak to the owl. I turned and continued my walk. I might have muttered a cautious, reverent “hello.”

Naturally, I just had to share this experience with all of my friends on Facebook. One of my friends on there practices witchcraft, and I was delighted to see that she “liked” my post, and commented on it. She was impressed by the story, said (as others did) that it is a sign of tremendous good luck, and then she wondered if perhaps I am a warlock.

I felt so flattered. I admire and respect this woman, and I enjoy her occasional posts about the moon, the islands and mountains around us, and the rhythms of the seasons. She knows much more than me about a great many things. If the power goes out or you’re in any kind of trouble, pray she’s nearby.

My friend reminds me of a little essay on metaphors for God, written by Gail Ramshaw, a Lutheran liturgical-language scholar who visited St. Paul’s last Lent. In her essay, which is really just a collection of one-sentence poems, Ramshaw reflected on several metaphors or images of God, all of them beginning with the letter “w”: God as waiter, God as wigwam, God as whaleboat, God as washerwoman, and so on. One of her metaphors for God was God as witch. She wrote, “Witch: one who with thoroughgoing knowledge of the forces of nature, the habits of creatures, and the patterns in plants has power to change what is to what is better: God as witch.”

At its best, our tradition welcomes this image of God.

I went looking for Ramshaw’s essay on the internet, and was disappointed to see that it was reprinted on a Christian blog without the witch passage. It seems that metaphor goes a bit too far for the comfort of many Christians. But why is this? Why do we worry so much?

After all, tonight we proclaim the story of three magicians visiting the Christ child. They were astrologers … they were Zoroastrians … they were “kings,” goes the Sunday School Christmas carol, though it’s inaccurate to call them royal dignitaries, bluebloods from an eastern land. They are closer to what we call scientists than they are to the House of Windsor. They were scholars. They were magi—a word related to magic and magician. They had a “thoroughgoing knowledge of the forces of nature.” They watched the stars. When they looked up into the vastness of the universe, they understood what they were seeing … or at least they found good ways to make sense of it for their purposes.

And we find them today kneeling before a Judean toddler (he might have been as old as two by the time they found him), and they open their chests to present royal gifts to him, gifts that signal not their importance, but his: the gold of a rich monarch; the incense of a high priest; the myrrh used in the burial rituals of nobility.

These foreigners had no prior knowledge of the child they visited, no prior reason to know or care who he was, or what his birth might mean to his own people. They came “from the east,” wherever that actually was, from ‘Neverland’ if you will, and if they hadn’t been watching the stars, it wouldn’t have occurred to them to make this journey.

But they were watching. They were paying attention. They were awake and alert, and then they followed that star. They followed that star out of their world, out of their culture, out of their way of life. They followed that star to a foreign and dangerous land. They followed that star into the intrigue of Herod’s court, into a city seized with fear, into the house of a young family living a life utterly different than theirs.

This is a story of humility, a story of curiosity, a story of willingness to follow someone or something outside of yourself—to follow it out of your comfort zone, out of your safety, and into something utterly different.

By comparison, Episcopalians and Lutherans living in community with owls and witches should really not be a big deal.

“Witch: one who with thoroughgoing knowledge of the forces of nature, the habits of creatures, and the patterns in plants has power to change what is to what is better: God as witch.”

Ours is not a gnostic faith, a faith divorced from the forces and habits and patterns of this earthly life. And ours is not a faith isolated from those who have other perspectives, other beliefs, other non-beliefs. We do not practice religion in anxious resistance to tough questions, challenges to our assumptions, and even contempt for our ways. We wrestle with the questions, we embrace the challenges, and we have empathy for those who hold us in contempt. (We know the dreadful sins of our history.)

We practice this open-mindedness—and this open-heartedness—because we follow the pattern of those ancient magicians to pay homage of our own to this Judean toddler, who grew up to embrace people on the margins, people on the outs, people who were “unclean” or deemed unworthy to step into the temple. We pay homage to a peasant prophet who transgressed the boundaries of his culture, and allowed himself to be executed as a scandalized political prisoner rather than comply with the usual, respectable norms and mores of his people, the norms and mores that shut some people out, often with cold cruelty.

I invite you to stop here on your walk, to turn and look from where you stand on this winter night, at this moment in your life. What strange creatures do you see around you? Where does the star lead you? Who are the persons in your life who call you out of your comfort zone, challenge your assumptions, glance at you from the tree branch and, without so much as a word, ask you a penetrating question?

We are assured tonight that if we willingly follow that star to the house where it stops, we will be overwhelmed with joy. Not safety, not certainty. Not comfort, not leisure. But the overwhelming joy of the One who came to shine justice and peace upon all the living creatures of this wondrous earth.


Work cited: Gail Ramshaw, "Under the Tree of Life: The Religion of a Feminist Christian"

Biblical Tests: Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14