Today is Epiphany. It is the day we celebrate the Wise Magi. Epiphany means “to bring to light” or “to cause to appear.” It means “to show” or “make manifest.” It means “to perceive the essential nature or meaning of something” or to have an “intuitive grasp of reality” usually through something “quite simple and striking.
A child laying in a manger is certainly quite simple and striking. And, whether we are talking about the yonder star that brought the Magi to Jesus, or Christ as the light made manifest, this is a day to see and know mystery brought to light.
But, just at the far edge of the Wise Magi’s gift giving visit to Bethlehem, something much less miraculous, and more criminally conventional occurs—King Herod, the one who sent the Magi to Jesus’ bedside in the first place, makes a demand that is quite unforgettable.
Listen now, to the unsavory end of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem from the gospel of Matthew 2:13–23, listen for God’s presence in all that is unbearable and astonishing.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men left for their own country by another road. Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when Joseph heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.
And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.
There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Holy God, make tender our hearts, and give voice to your presence in our world of perpetual danger and extraordinary innocence. In such a world, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be holy and acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
his frankly terrifying scripture passage is in such close proximity to our most beloved Christmas stories, that we hardly have any excuse to pass it by. But, it is much too sad to be included on a sentimental celebratory Christmas Eve, and in the wake of Christmas, there is a rush to move onto stories of Christ as an adult, his sermon on a mount, his loaves and fishes, his walking on water—there are so many stories to tell and such little time, 52 hours a year, less, really.
And maybe, the slaughter of the innocents, as it is called, is just too this-worldly for us, not mystical enough, not spiritual enough, too real to be spoken of here in this holy place—a sanctuary with its architecture pointing toward the heavens, and away from the earthy tragedies of this life. How could a savior, a messiah, a miracle worker, an incarnate deity be born into a world so similar to our own, in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of a tyrant like Herod?[i]
On the cusp of this new year, when fresh resolutions resound with renewed vigor, as yet unspoiled by an unceasing human inability to live into our wildest hopes and dreams, we might still have faith that 2016 will be a different year than the last, when fewer children will be defeated by tyrants, fewer innocent people victimized by the powerful, fewer refugees chased from their homeland by the spoils of war. Surely in 2016 we will be older and wiser, more peaceful and less fearful.
But, if the photojournalism of the last year has any power to speak the truth about the world in which we live, then I would suspect that the God of the gospel will continue to meet us where we are—in the midst of a world filled with perpetual danger and extraordinary innocence.[ii]
[i] Stanley Hauerwas, “Matthew” Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, 2006.
[ii] James Alison, “Risk and Fulfilment” Christian Century. December 11, 2007.
A photo from Liberia last January shows a nurses aid and Ebola survivor, comforting an infant girl with symptoms of the disease in a high-risk treatment area.
A photo from the Ukraine last February shows a child playing cards in a local theater used as a bomb shelter during fighting between the Ukrainian Army and Russian backed militant.
A photo from Kenya in April shows the dusty grave of Angela Githakwa, one of the 142 students killed at Garissa University College in an attack by Shabab militants.
A photo from Myanmar in June shows a twelve year old Rohingya girl holding her undernourished infant brother in a squalid camp; persecution forced thousands of Rohingya to flee from their homes this year.
A photo from Gaza in July shows five year old Takka Najjar standing amid the rubble of her destroyed home; over 250 members of her extended family moved to trailers after losing their homes in the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.
A photo from the border between Greece and Macedonia in August shows a child standing in a field of police officers controlling a rush of refugees seeking safety.
A photo from Serbia in September shows a man trying to save his child as Hungarian police officers fired tear gas and pepper spray and water cannons at migrants trying to cross into the country.
And finally, the one so many might have seen or heard about or will recognize for years to come, a photo from Turkey in September of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose drowning off the coast of Turkey drew public sympathy to the refugee crisis.[i]
We live in the midst of a world filled with perpetual danger and extraordinary innocence.[i] And, we gather around sacred stories like today’s story, to find hope in hopeless places, to find other mothers with whom to weep, to make way for a Balm in Gilead, to name sorrow and claim life, to gather our strength to start anew.
Such new beginnings demand our whole heart. Mundane resolutions will not do. The ritual of arriving here in this holy place to worship God is likely not just formed by the vaulted ceilings that point to the heavens, but by the pews that root our feet to the ground, and by the doorways that bring us together, and yet send us back out in the world again. Hearty, life-transforming resolutions are the only balm in Gilead, are the only hope. What, then of gathering around this story of the Magi?
We don’t have much time until the doors of this place beckon us back into the world, and there must be some hope of God from the midst of this tale of terror. You remember bits of this story, yes? The Magi follow yonder star seeking a king who has been born. The wise men are sent by King Herod who asks them with what sounds like a wink and a nod, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
Of course, this is a joke, right? A king paying homage to another king? There is only room for one king in Herod’s kingdom and that’s him. The Gospel of Matthew sets us up brilliantly to see Herod as the selfish, scheming villain to our innocent infant hero Jesus.
- Herod is like Mr. Potter to our hero George Baily,
- Joker to our hero Batman,
- Voldemort to our hero Harry,
- Sauron to our hero Frodo,
- Vader to our hero Luke,
- and most importantly in Matthew’s context, Pharaoh to our hero Moses.
Matthew is telling us an old new story, retelling history in a familiar way, picking out the pieces of an ancient epic and then echoing its core message for the sake of a new promise—the promise of God-with-us, now in flesh appearing. The banal local monarch, Herod, becomes the portentous pharaoh of lore, killing all the firstborn Hebrew children. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus relives the story of Moses’ childhood, protected by God so he can lead his people to an ever-greater promise.[ii]
Now, if you are like me, you saw the new Star Wars film some time since Christmas; maybe twice. And, if you haven’t had time, then I promise this next bit will be spoiler free. The writer and producer of the new Star Wars film, J. J. Abrams, would do well in this gospel-writing genre. Already writing a sequel for the Mission Impossible franchise and a reboot of the Star Trek saga, Abrams understands storytelling with a gospel level attention to detail, recycling old themes in order to point to a new future.
The new Star Wars film offers the classic desert and ice planet battle scenes, loyal chattering droids, excellent banter between Chewy and Han Solo, and multiple surprise family reunions, as well as that familiar look on someone’s face as they realize the force is with them, and a crowded bar scene with odd music and nefarious characters quite reminiscent of Jabba the Hut’s Cantina. And J. J. Abrams channels the gospel writers’ recapitulative narrative style best when a new character in this year’s film performs a Jedi mind trick on a Storm Trooper that is practically as powerful as Obiwan Kenobi’s quite nonchalant “This is not the droid you are looking for.”
In the new film, too, as in the original trilogy, countless un-mourned innocents are killed, and complicated heroes emerge with equally complicated villains to battle. And still, in light of all these call backs to remind viewers of the more ancient stories, in the same way that the Gospel of Matthew hangs together as a story even if you don’t recognize the Jesus-Moses connection, the new Star Wars movie can be enjoyed by my sci-fi oblivious Father-in-Law who had seen nary a George Lucas film.
Storytellers like these never tell just one story, even when it’s a story that also does a good job of recalling older stories. Scenes in Star Wars can’t help but remind contemporary viewers of old Nazi gatherings and Hitler’s reign of terror, in the same way that the original audience for the Gospel of Matthew—back in 80 AD—can’t hear this story of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaping to Egypt without thinking of refugees in their own day, fleeing the Jewish War in Palestine as Herod’s empire crumbled, and the even more villainous leaders emerged from the Roman Empire in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And so, while Luke’s gospel has Mary singing her melodious Magnificat, no one even whistles a tune in Matthew’s infancy narrative; instead they weep. And, while the Magi are esteemed parts of our nativities—holding places of honor in our crib sets and offering fifth and sixth graders the privilege of walking down that aisle singing solos from We Three Kings, the gifts that the Magi bring are more wise and prophetic than pure acts of generosity.
The gold predicted a king. The frankincense, incense used in the very dwelling place of God, where Yahweh was uniquely present on earth, foresaw divinity. And myrrh, a burial perfume, anticipates the suffering and death of this infant the Magi have traveled so far to honor. And, if you’ve ever heard a ten year old sing a solo of this verse of We Three Kings, then you know why there is weeping in Matthew’s gospel. We’ll sing it together soon enough.
Ultimately, Jesus and his family do move back to Palestine after Herod’s death, but the story does not suddenly become one of puppy dogs and rainbows. They undertake the radical act of moving back to a politically volatile place, where the struggle for justice and liberation is a struggle that always continues. And, as Christmas and Easter people, we know both the beginning and the end of that story of suffering and struggle for justice.
On this third day of 2016, when the world has put on a new pair of rose colored glasses, it is hard to say that this story exudes even an inkling of hope. Yet, what I have seen in these last two years at Kenilworth Union Church is that this congregation serves God and neighbor best at this very corner of joy and sorrow, where compassionate participation meets an embodied love that bears with the chaos.
This Church does not exist primarily because of chipper cheery fake-smiles and facades of shallow joy. The Church is both divine and dusty, at once disreputable and shabby, susceptible to all human frailties; yet a mystery of love beyond all imagining.[iii] This church bears with the chaos because in gathering here—sitting on these pews with our feet on the ground and our vaulted ceilings pointing to the heavens—this community is able to endure together, to face the chaos of life in community, to live the examined life of love that is struggle, bearing with the chaos.
And so, this passage is a celebratory way to ring in the New Year only when it moves just one person to help someone of extraordinary innocence who lives in perpetual danger. And this passage is a celebratory way to ring in the New Year only when it strengthens just one person to flee from the ones who are Herod-like villains in this chaotic world. And this passage is a celebratory way to ring in the New Year only when it builds up this community that so deeply participates in a compassionate love that bears with the chaos. This passage is a celebratory way to ring in the New Year only when it allows people to gather for renewal and be sent out strengthened.
Here, light dawns, courage is renewed, tears are wiped away, a new moment of life arises. Speaking about suffering—ours and God’s own foretold by the Magi’s myrrh—offers an ally of resistance and a wellspring of hope.[iv] But it does so, not in some magical world of perfection, but in this place of perpetual danger, where our very gathering is often the surest sign of God’s light made manifest. May it be so. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] James Alison, “Risk and Fulfilment” Christian Century. December 11, 2007.
[ii] James Alison, “Risk and Fulfilment” Christian Century. December 11, 2007.
[iii] David Bosch, Transforming Mission, 2011, page 398.
[iv] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is, 1992, page 272