Kahu's Mana‘o

Keawala’i Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)

Second Sunday After Christmas
Sunday, January 2, 2011

Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12


I spoke with my niece, Ku‘uwehi, on Friday. She called on Christmas day to say “Mele Kalikimaka.” I called her back to wish her a “Hau‘oli Makahiki Hou!” on New Year’s Day. Ku‘uwehi and her twin sisters, Rebecca and Billie, are graduates of Nä Wahi – the Hawaiian language high school located on the highway between Kea‘au and Pahoa on the island of Hawai‘i.

All are fluent in Hawaiian. They read, write, speak and think in Hawaiian. Whenever I have a chance to speak with them I realize how close we had come, in our lifetime, to losing the language altogether.

The intention of language is to communicate or convey a thought or feeling. But when one has to translate a thought or feeling into another language, something often gets lost in the translation. I thought about that as I looked at the Bible readings for today.

In our Call to Worship, the psalmist offers a prayer for guidance and support of the king. “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.” (Psalm 72:1) It is specific in its reference to a king and a king’s son but in the Hawaiian, it appears gender neutral. “Give the chief or chiefess your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a child of the chief or chiefess.”

Having noticed that distinction prompted me to think about the high chiefess Lili‘uokalani. She was queen of Hawai‘i from 1891-1893. In 1893 her crown was usurped by political forces and economic interests seeking to have Hawai‘i “annexed” to the United States of America.

Lili‘uokalani spent almost seven months in attempts to “nullify all arguments for Hawaiian annexation.” (The Betrayal of Lili‘uokalani, Helena G. Allen, Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, 1982, page 36) She traveled to Washington D.C. in 1898 to appeal to the U.S. Congress for the restoration of the kingdom.

In April of that year the United Sates declared war on Spain to free Cuba. The war expanded to included the Philippines and those who sought to have Hawai‘i annexed to the U.S. for economic reasons could not have been happier. Pearl Harbor would soon become a military outpost for warships bound for the war zone in the Pacific.

In June the House of Representatives passed a resolution of annexation and in July the Senate passed its resolution. On July 7, 1898 President McKinley signed the bill for the annexation of Hawai‘i and a week later, word arrived in Honolulu.

When McKinley signed the bill Lili‘uokalani was on board the ship Gaelic bound for Honolulu. It was due to arrive on August 2nd. The transfer of sovereignty was to take place ten days later on August 12th. Helena Allen, in her biography of the queen, noted that the annexationists in Honolulu were jubilant but the Hawaiians “were desperately gloomy. Among all was a feeling of holding expressions of either joy or grief in abeyance until Lili‘uokalani would step off the Gaelic.” (Op. cit.)

The ship was sighted off Koko Head on a clear night before its arrival at Honolulu harbor. The people gathered in complete silence waiting for the ship to arrive. Among those waiting for the queen were Princess Kai‘ulani and Prince David Kawanakoa. Allen wrote, “On August 2, 1898, there was room in the heart of both Lili‘uokalani and Kai‘ulani for only one emotion –the unbearable grief of the loss of Hawai‘i forever.” (Op. cit.)

Upon the ship’s arrival, Prince David went aboard to escort the queen down the gang plank. As she walked off the ship, she paused for a moment and looked at those gathered before her and noticed both men and women crying in total silence.

As her eyes swept over the crowd she looked at each person and simply said, “Aloha.”
The people responded answering aloha with all the meaning of what Allen refers to as the “old aloha” – one spoken from a heart of forgiveness and recognition of the power of “God within.” (Ibid., page 362)

It is said that some of the English and American royalists in the crowd began “an abortive cheer; but the silence, that had again fallen, stopped them.” (Op. cit.) The queen made her way by carriage through the streets of Honolulu back to her residence at Washington Place.

As she changed out of her traveling clothes into a gown of black and lavender, the throng that had gathered in the courtyard near the steps to Washington Place waited in silence. Allen then described a remarkable occurrence, something that had not been seen in nearly a hundred years.

Men and women alike fell to their knees before the queen and crept up the steps of the veranda to Lili‘uokalani to kiss the hand of the queen. Among them was an old blind man whom the queen had helped at one point in her life.

There was no kapu that day. No one was forbidden to approach the queen. They had come to pay homage to the one who had compassion on the weak and needed; who helped the poor; who defended their cause.

There is in the Greek language the word proskyneö. It is a word that appears in our reading from The Gospel According to Matthew and is used “to describe the custom of prostrating oneself at the feet of a king; to pay him homage.” (Op. cit., pages 213-214)

If there were any Greeks among those who had gathered at Washington Place when the queen stepped out on the veranda on that August day in 1898, I imagine they would have described what was occurring in a similar fashion – that the people were prostrating themselves at the feet of a queen; to pay her homage. I have come to appreciate our reading from Matthew more deeply as I think about what transpired that day in Honolulu.

The story of magi offering gifts of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11) to the Christ Child at his birth is one that we know. We have grown up with the tradition of being told there were “three magi” or “three wise men” or “three kings” who brought three gifts.

Yet we also know, upon a closer reading of the story, that Matthew does not specify that there were three magi. We don’t know exactly how many may have made the journey to Bethlehem, but “tradition” seems to equate the number of magi with the number of gifts that were offered.

“Because tradition has concentrated on the three gifts given by the three magi,” we miss something in the passage that is more central to its understanding and that is the word proskyneö. It occurs three times – “at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the story.” (Matthew 2:2, 8, 22; Feasting on the Word, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 213) Whether or not there were three magi or three gifts, what is far more significant is how the story is given its purpose, direction and culmination through those who have come to pay homage to the Christ Child.

When Herod calls on the magi to seek out the Christ Child that he too may “pay homage to him” he does so out of fear. He recognizes that whatever it was that compelled the magi to venture forth on their long and arduous journey to an unknown location to pay homage to a newborn child, it is a threat to his power.

Rather than arrest the magi for their threat to the Roman Empire, he seeks to engage their help in locating the one whom they have come to find. The magi find the child and as they enter the house where they saw the child with Mary, they did not offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Instead, it is said that they first knelt down – they got down on their knees – and paid homage to him. Then they offered their gifts. “Only after this act of worship, only after giving themselves completely to Christ, do they present their material gifts.” (Ibid., page 217)

The journey of the magi is our journey. It is a journey of a life of faith. Like them we come to “pay homage” to the Christ Child. (Feasting on the Word, page 215)

But why the story of the queen and those who had come to pay homage to her? Are we to assume that what they did was an act of worship?

Lili‘uokalani was baptized at Kawaiaha‘o Church in Honolulu. She sang in the choir; she taught Sunday school. In her account of the queen’s life writer Helena Allen notes that the action of the people on day at Washington Place was not as an act of worship of the queen but a way to give honor to her. It was done not out of obedience to royalty, but out of aloha.

In that sense it may also be said that when the magi found the Christ Child and knelt before him and paid homage to him, they did so out of their aloha. It is this gift of aloha that we celebrate on this day and during this season of Epiphany.

Epiphany is more than a celebration of the magi’s visit to the infant Jesus. The star that guided them beckons each of us to embrace the gift of Christ with aloha. It is this gift of aloha, more than the gold, frankincense and myrrh that we remember and celebrate as we gather to share the bread and the cup on this day.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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