I have a confession to make: every Epiphany I can’t wait to hear the camel music. “The camel music?” you might inquire with acute curiosity and confused wonder. Yes, the camel music. I admit that the unofficial musical term “camel music” was coined by a friend of mine to describe the somewhat campy improvisational organ interludes between stanzas of the hymn “We three kings.” And, yes, John Henry Hopkins’s Victorian hymn, which has become known all over the world, is a bit campy in a nineteenth century sort of way. But let’s at least own up to the fact that this hymn is very effective, hence its universal popularity.
From a musical perspective, “We three kings” attempts to evoke the exoticism of another land, albeit using a Western musical language that is colored with Victorian Romantic harmonies. And although the melody of this hymn avoids unusual chromatic notes and is based on a Western musical scale, its repetitive nature and simplicity somehow stirs up visions of far Eastern music, especially to a Western ear. The camel music ratchets up this evocation of a foreign land, introducing wild rhythms, hints of non-Western scales, and musical visions of Arabia.
The exotic flare of the camel music, when executed by a gifted organist, can bring us, the listeners, on the magi’s journey far from our native land to a strange country. And in that unfamiliar country, drawn by our imaginations, we suddenly discover that God’s manifestation in Christ has dawned upon our lives in the most unpredictable ways. By following the camel music, we are changed, and we are brought to an unanticipated destination from which we can only return home by another route.
The complicated thing about the camel music, though, is that its dreamy improvisations take us to places that we’re not sure are actually in the Biblical narrative itself. After all, Matthew’s story of the journey of the magi leaves more questions than answers. We know only that “wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” Scholars have speculated that these wise men, or magi, were from ancient Persia and were perhaps Zoroastrians. But it’s anyone’s guess, really. The point is that in our modern cogitations on the origins of the magi, scholarly and unscholarly, we, too, have left our homes and entered on a journey of our imaginations fueled by the grace of God. In our mental odysseys, we no longer remained mired in the certainty of answers, or in the assured conviction that Christ’s manifestation to us is only in one particular way or in one particular language or only in one particular part of the world. Matthew’s account of the magi’s journey opens up Christ’s manifestation to people in all kinds of strange lands.
You can find in any number of Biblical commentaries further conjectures about other aspects of the magi’s journey. Scripture never tells us that there were only three magi; it’s just assumed from the mention of three gifts. And the story never mentions camels, but can’t you just picture the magi traversing moor and mountain on dromedaries? And is the point really whether or not there were camels? Because if we get caught up in whether there were actually camels or not, or whether there were three wise men, or whether the magi were definitely from Persia, we miss the point of the story. We miss how God’s epiphany to us occurs in spectacular ways borne on the wings of our imaginations. And if we resist dreaming on our life’s journeys, we may fail to behold the glory of God’s face before our eyes.
Oh, and there is that bit about a dream in Matthew’s Biblical narrative. The wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. The inclination of some to demystify much of Scripture and to subject God’s Word to historical fact-checking might easily dismiss this dream business. But what if we let the camel music inspire us for just a bit? What if we imagine that God can indeed speak to us in dreams? And if God does speak to us in dreams, but we discount that as foolery, we risk overlooking Christ’s face shining upon us as light from a star.
And a star is the leader of the magi’s journey. It is this strange star that moves and stops, all to point out the exact location of Christ’s birth. Was this star of Bethlehem a comet or a supernova or a planetary conjunction of Venus and Jupiter? Perhaps. But what if it were a miracle? Or what if those magi were so receptive to God’s imaginative revelation in the world that they instinctively followed an unusual star and thereby discovered the Christ child?
All the details in Matthew’s story of the magi’s journey to Christ seem to support one fact that some scholars and skeptical minds will probably never fathom: the unveiling of God’s face to the world is grounded in mystery and wonder. And if we shut the door to mystery and wonder, we might ignore God’s epiphanies to us.
The perceptive magi are so very different from Herod. These Gentile wise men, perhaps dabbling in astrology, make a seemingly ludicrous trip to a foreign Jewish land based only on a hunch drawn from an errant star. With no clear plan for their journey, they simply appear in Jerusalem to inquire where the Messiah might be. They know not where they may end up on this path of discovery. They know not the rigor and perils of the journey ahead. They simply follow their instincts, as if accepting a call from God, and they journey to worship this newborn king.
But Herod, unlike these open-hearted magi, has closed himself off to God’s manifestation in his life because of his fear. Because of his fear, he proceeds in secrecy. With scientific precision, he wants to know the exact time of the star’s appearing. And in his quest to preserve his own power, he becomes mired in a technical plan to destroy the threat he perceives in an infant child. Herod seems immune to the mystery and wonder of God’s humble revelation to the world. Herod himself cannot be enticed by the camel music and led to undertake the journey to Jesus himself. Herod leaves this rigorous work to the wondering magi, who wander by the light of a strange star to encounter Christ and thereby are blessed by him.
The magi follow the camel music. Willing to be led on a wild, exotic trip to a foreign land, they are brought to the face of God himself. This unpredictable journey and seemingly futile expedition leaves them changed forever. And when we, too, allow ourselves to be opened up to the camel music and be led to strange and exotic places in our spiritual lives, we may just find God there waiting to greet us. We will find that we can only return home by another route, for we can never be the same again.
And, oh, how our modern world could benefit from following the camel music! The camel music’s unpredictable harmonies and meandering melodies will likely disturb our Western harmonic sensibilities. Its alien musical language will stretch the limits of our well-trained ears. And the musical journey we undertake will, at times, be difficult. But if we heed our dreams and brave a wild adventure lured by some mysterious call from God, we will not regret the journey.
Like the magi, if we offer the gifts of ourselves in openness, imagination, and wonder, we will in turn receive the gift of Christ in wholly unexpected ways. And then, the rigid, human-imposed boundaries of this world will dissolve in awe before God’s boundary-shattering might. Then, the regulations and rules that we levy to protect ourselves from the unanticipated will dissipate before the force of a God who must re-order this world by surprise.
The camel music enables us to believe that God still works miracles. The camel music draws us into incredible journeys in which we submit ourselves to the fruits of wild dreams that renew our souls again and again. Campy and ahistorical though it may be, the camel music reminds us that in desperate times, in times that devalue mystery and imagination, God can break into human stagnation and complacency and captivate us. When we let go, dream, and saddle ourselves up for the journey, led by the star of a crazy instinct, we discover the glory of Christ’s constant epiphanies today. Yes, even today.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
6 January 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia