In AD 1324, the West African Mansa (king) Musa began his legendary hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. His journey would reconfigure the imaginations and economies of the region for centuries. At that point, the kingdom of Mali was the wealthiest center of civilization on earth.
In addition to the unimaginable gold deposits being extracted from mines of Mali, Musa had established trade to North Africa and the Middle East. Mansa Musa was indisputably the most wealthy person in the history of the world – so opulent that scholars cannot begin to estimate his riches.
Musa’s Arabia-bound entourage was composed of over 60,000 fellow pilgrims and dozens of camels each burdened with 300 pounds of gold. As they made their way north through the Bedouin trade routes then eastward toward Mecca they dispensed with such vast quantities of gold via commerce and largess that the currencies of the entire region were decimated; such sums of wealth were disgorged during their sojourn in Cairo that Egyptian markets required over a decade to fully recover.
Never before and never since has such worldly wealth been conflated in sacred enterprise. The medieval world was left bedazzled.
The grandiosity with which we populate our rhetoric of worship is so often belied by the miserliness of our own pilgrimage through this world. Can Advent birth in us an extravagant generosity? I must believe so. But it does something more. Advent conceives in us extravagant wealth. This is Advent’s miracle.
For the prophet Isaiah announces a mystery that eludes us even still,
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
Can it be that this royal child would be born unto us? Might Mary’s joyful awe be ours as well? Should we too come to bear something holy, sovereign, and everlasting within our very selves? Could we, with Mary, each be theotokos; “bearers of God”?
Let us listen along with the faith-filled Virgin to the words of the archangel, “Do not be afraid! You have found favor with God.” What a pregnant phrase! Found favor with God. Favor is the same word for generosity. Like an unwary prospector, she had struck unfathomable riches.
We’re told of Mary, that she “treasured up these things in her heart,” therefore we find her exulting,
My soul praises the Lord’s greatness!
My spirit finds its joy in God, my Savior,
because he has looked favorably on me, his humble servant.
From now on, all people will call me blessed
Her soul praises because her spirit had found its joy. Her joy was in God her Savior. And where was her Savior found? Gestating within her. Many will call her blessed for many will be swept into her blessedness. To quote Tiny Tim, “God bless us! Every one!”
Let us hear with Joseph also, “Do not be afraid!
We are forced to ponder, “Is not fear the centerpiece of my stinginess?” For myself, I must answer yes. I am so often a “bearer” of Scrooge.
Dickens’ Scrooge was meant to embody of a generation made stingy. Of course, his character is introduced amidst prosperity, yet without the capacity for generosity. In Dickens’ imagination, Scrooge had grown up in squalor, beset by the austerity of the Napoleonic wars, the uncertainty of civil unrest, the brutal inequalities of an industrialized England, and, yes, epidemics. Scrooge had emerged with wealth, yet remained shackled to the terrors of scarcity.
Having read the latest parliamentary report detailing the heart-wrenching conditions of the poor, Dickens set forth “to write something that would strike a sledgehammer blow twenty thousand times the force of a government pamphlet” on their behalf. His publishers thought it an uncouth Christmas work and rejected it. Dickens was forced to publish it himself, which he did on December 19, 1843. Copies sold faster than could be printed.
A friend described the success,
It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.
Advent arrives impolitely to address our stinginess for, in actuality, it addresses our neatly concealed dread.
As magi we journey to find. We journey to find a Child of royal estate. We, “the people walking in darkness,” journey toward a dim light in the fainting hope that this royal Child be also born even unto us!
It isn’t impossible to think that these magi journeyed with fragments of Isaiah’s prophecy clutched to their breasts; studying them by firelight each night.
Like Mansa Musa they brought gifts of gold, though not in economy-unraveling quantities. And as we travel with them, we bring with us our gold; our wealth, our privilege, and also our dread. Can these all be laid down at once? This is Advent’s query.
When, later in his life, this Child of Advent encountered the wealthy, it was with mixed results. During one of his journeys, a rich man chased him down, knelt before him, and asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” It began with such promise, until they arrived at the topic of his wealth.
“Jesus looked at him and loved him,” we read, “then said, ‘Sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.'” The man became “deeply dismayed by these words and went away grieving for he had great wealth.” Or did he?
Jesus had invited this man out of a life of dread and scarcity. The invitation had issued from love. Yet this man’s material riches occasioned a pilgrimage away from Jesus; a pilgrimage back to earth-drawn wealth and to scarcity and dread.
As the magi made their way through the Jerusalem of Herod the Great, there was much vexation. And we recall the words playwright Dorothy Sayers put in Herod’s mouth for these magi,
You cannot rule men by love. When you find your king, tell him so. Only three things will govern a people – fear and greed and the promise of security.
There can be no mistaking that this is nearly always the case. Nearly, but not always.
So we find Napoleon on the island of Saint Helena, exiled and debased, marveling at Advent’s Child,
Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force.
Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.
The gold of the magi must pose for us a simple question: what shall govern you? Will it be scarcity and fear expressing themselves through Scroogelikeness, or a superabundance of love expressing itself through generosity?
For the pilgrimage of Advent must be seen for what I really is; not a pilgrimage whereby our wealth is dispersed in dazzling display. It is a pilgrimage whereby God’s wealth bedazzles by the gift of his very Son.
St. Paul summarized it’s message respledently,
For you know the generosity of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
Napoleon alludes to this, and Advent makes it plain: an empire founded upon love – a perfect love, which drives out fear and scarcity. The largess of Advent does not deflate the currencies of the world but annuls them altogether by ravaging their very standards. God has given us nothing less than Himself.
In the company of the magi, as we open up our treasuries and lay their contents before the royal Child, we are, as it were, unburdening ourselves from their cruel reign of terror.
“Do not be afraid!” Advent announces. You have found the mother lode of God. “Unto us a Child is born!”