Does anyone remember the game, “Trivial Pursuits”?
I cannot even remember how long ago I last played it, but I do recall that the question that ended my run was about what then was popular music, of which I stopped having any familiarity back in the mid- to late- 1970’s, but that does not mean that I have lost interest in trying to succeed in all aspects of trivia.
And some matters that in a certain sense are trivia — and whether trivia is a fair word to use is itself a fair question — some matters that in a certain sense are trivia are two questions that recently arose for me. The first was, “Why is Christmas on December 25?”
The most commonly accepted explanation is that the Christian Church seized upon an existing Roman Empire celebration and festival, that of the winter solstice, and designated that as Christmas, although that does not quite explain the date, just gets us close. But a source I consulted recently said that before the Church began the celebration or festival aspects of Christmas, it already had settled on December 25 as Jesus’ birthdate, with the source explaining that some early Christian theologians — we are talking second and third centuries here — hypothesized (though what was there reasoning I have no idea and cannot comprehend), hypothesized that God must have “entered” human flesh, that is, Jesus must have been conceived, the same day of the year that God left human flesh, the resurrection, or Easter, and that because Easter was tied to Passover, they concluded that on the year (which we actually do not know with exact certainty) in which Jesus was crucified and resurrected, the resurrection would have occurred on March 25, so figuring nine months of gestation, Mary must have given birth to Jesus on December 25.
Now for what it is worth, December 25 on the Julian calendar, which was the calendar then used, is January 7 on the Gregorian calendar, which is why the Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas this Tuesday.
And that leads to a second bit of trivia: I had erroneously believed until pursuing the specific matter, that the Orthodox were in fact actually celebrating Epiphany, which our western, or Roman-descendant Church, celebrates tomorrow, January 6, twelve days after we celebrate Christmas . . . but the bit of knowledge as to why Epiphany is twelve days after Christmas, well, as you can see from the notes at the beginning of our bulletin, I still do not know — nor, for that matter, does it appear that anyone has an answer for “why twelve” other than what I have presented.
But as to trivia, each day in my email inbox I get two different “trivia” questions. One of these is called “Travel Trivia” and asks questions largely about geography, and while I do fairly well at that, I do much better at one that deals with more general items including words; specifically, vocabulary and word meanings. I do much better at that, I guess because I enjoy words, and it was that enjoyment that I suspect led to my choosing the specific translation we used earlier of the story of the visit of the Magi or “wise men” or “three kings” to the cradle of the baby Jesus, the event that we celebrate as Epiphany, a translation that says:
When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem.
The other translations I use translate the Greek word tarasso used in Matthew’s version of the Gospel in the New Testament, a word used as far back as Homer’s time, as meaning that Herod “and the whole of Jerusalem” were troubled or frightened at what the Magi had said — and those are fine translations of that Greek word, tarasso, as would be upset or disquieted, but the New Jerusalem Bible’s choice of perturbed popped out at me, perturbed.
It popped out at me because a related word, perturbation, reminded me of physics, and more particularly, of quantum mechanics, in which perturbation theory was an arithmetic technique to solve a problem which in fact could not be solved exactly by mathematics; one first finds an approximate solution mathematically, and then makes small changes, or perturbations, to come closer to the actual solution. And in these instances, quantum mechanics is dealing with particles, which is itself a questionable term, smaller than the eye or any device could see, so small that a photon, the concept of a weightless “particle” of light, would cause it to move.
What does physics have to do with Epiphany? Physics deals not just with the small, but with the massive, such as a star; all of science, including astronomy, incorporates or is really an application of physics; whether they realize it or not, those who attempt to date the visit of the Magi and the biblical star with a historic event are looking to physics!
But while I have to say it was the physics connection that made “When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem” leap out to me, this message is not about physics, but about reflecting further on perturbed, in which I think there is a double-edged message for us as Christ’s Church in that word perturbed that has nothing to do with physics.
Just as Herod “and the whole of Jerusalem” were perturbed, we need to be perturbed; we need to be upset and disquieted that faith plays so small a part in the lives of so many of our fellow humans, of our fellow citizens, of our friends and of our neighbors, even of our own family members. We need to be perturbed not just because this has led to an alarming trend to turn from being reluctantly non-judgmental — as opposed to forgiving —of their or of our own immorality and becoming outright acquiescent, but even more so, we need to be perturbed because a lack of faith actually leads to a lack of hope and of reason to act, aside from avoiding breaking a human-made law, to in ways that benefits others. Faith, specifically, I believe, faith in what God through Christ has done for us, brings a joy and hope and direction to individual lives that nothing else, certainly nothing that government or politics can achieve, can bring, and I am perturbed that others might not be able to know that joy and hope and direction— and peace.
And I am perturbed that so much of Christ’s Church has turned, if not toward political solutions rather than to faith as a solution to human problems, but has also that so many of us in Christ’s Church have turned inward to thinking that all that matters to Christ’s Church is the life of our individual churches. If only the individual church matters to us, we have failed to understand the reason we are called to be Christ’s Church, which is: to make disciples of all nations; to baptize everyone in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?
I had written the first draft of this morning’s message before I received an email with a quotation from a twentieth century rabbi that summarizes why we should be perturbed as the world turns away from religion and becomes increasingly secular:
"A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”
And as I noted when I posted this to my Facebook page — and for the most part I turn my nose up at Facebook, — I’m not there, but my Christian aspiration is to spend life seeking to achieve it.
I hope we, too, can be perturbed, not because Herod was challenged as “King of the Jews,” but because having known the true epiphany represented in God’s becoming human as Jesus Christ, we are perturbed that the world does not yet know Him, perturbed that not enough of the children of God know that they are children — beloved children — of God for whom Christ died, and so perturbed at ourselves that we have not completed our tasks on his behalf.
As we come to this table, may the spiritual nourishment that we take not merely reassure us of what God through Christ has done for us, but may it energize us and may it perturb us so that we can go forth to help all the world see Christ in us and thereby let them experience epiphany for themselves.