Most of us have probably put our Nativity sets away for the year. The Twelve Days of Christmas are over. And churches, like ours, that insist on celebrating Epiphany on the Sunday closest to January 6th – the actual day of Epiphany – are really pushing it having the angel, the shepherds, the animals, the whole shebang here along with the Magi today.
But Epiphany is a much too important part of the Christmas story to be overlooked in the jam-packed holiday season we’ve just come through. If the only story we know is the one we learned from children’s Christmas pageants (except maybe for this one at Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan!), we assume that the Magi arrived on the scene at the same time or shortly after the angels and shepherds and were simply part of the great birthday party in the Bethlehem stable. But the Magi play a very specific role in this story that Matthew created to illustrate what the life and death of Jesus meant to him. As cute as the kids are in their bathrobes and cardboard crowns, carrying props that resemble gold, frankincense and myrrh, the words of the traditional song hint at darker days to come:
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.
Not the most cheerful birthday party song. I pity the one who had to offer Jesus that gift! But then Matthew wants us to know that from the very start Jesus was going to cause problems for the powers-that-be. Starting with King Herod, who had so obsequiously asked the Magi to come back and tell him about the newborn child so that he could go and pay tribute, too. If this were a movie, we’d be shouting at the screen, “Don’t believe him!” Thankfully, they’re warned in a dream not to report back to Herod and go home another way.
But that’s not the last of it. According to Matthew, after the Magi depart Joseph has a dream in which an angel warns him to take his family and flee to Egypt. A good thing he does because when Herod realizes he’d been tricked by the Magi, he goes into a rage and orders the deaths of all children in and around Bethlehem two years old or younger.
Did that actually happen? There is no historical evidence for it, despite other valid accounts of Herod’s misdeeds, including murdering three of his own sons, his mother-in-law, and his second wife. But historicity is not Matthew’s point.
The point in this Epiphany tale is that the birth of Jesus would have both religious and political implications. The news of Light coming into the world was not necessarily good news for the rich and powerful of Jesus’ day. In fact, as the Magi discovered, the rich and powerful actually have a vested interest in destroying that Light. As one commentator wrote: “While politicians promise to shake things up and drain the so-called swamp, their words reveal more heat than light. The rich and powerful want to remain rich and powerful even if it means holding onto the status quo of widespread poverty, destruction of species and the eco-sphere, and the growing disparity of the rich and poor.”
Herods abound –as much today as they have throughout the ages. That’s the reality. But as the Magi discovered, that does not mean that it’s the end of the journey. It simply means (as my GPS often tells me) “rerouting” and going a different way.
I say simply, but it’s not that simple, is it? When you expect things to go a certain way, anticipate one outcome, one pathway but then have to let go of it and embrace another? Sometimes we get to choose another road, but other times not. All kinds of things can force us onto paths we would not have chosen: job loss, illness, accident, divorce, natural disaster, national upheaval. We make our plans, but often have to turn off the GPS and go forward, not fully knowing where our new path will lead.
That doesn’t mean, though, that we are left with no guidance system. If the Epiphany story tells us anything, it tells us about Divine guidance. A star in the sky leads the Magi to Jesus. A dream warns them to go home a different way. And Joseph’s dream, too, ensures that the Light will continue to shine on.
I think this is why I love Epiphany so much. It doesn’t allow the Christmas story to stop with a sweet scene in a stable on a silent night. It zooms the birth of Jesus out into the political realm with a realism that we recognize all too well. I remember when I was a kid, I couldn’t understand why Jesus was called Prince of Peace. If he came to bring peace on earth, something had obviously gone wrong. But then I came to understand that the birth of Jesus wasn’t about there being a new Herod in town. The politics of Jesus aren’t the politics of the world. And the politics of Jesus will always be confrontational to the halls of wealth and power. We will always have to stand in opposition to the powers-that-be.
It’s no wonder that being a Christian for the first three centuries was so dangerous. Even the Christmas story itself, so beloved for its promise of “peace on earth,” was essentially a story of political resistance, proclaiming a radically different kind of Savior and a vision of peace on earth based not on power over others, but upon compassion and justice for all people. I think the poem by Howard Thurman, the African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, says it best.
“Now the Work of Christmas Begins”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
That was the work of Jesus; it is our work as well. And I love that Thurman adds making music in the heart to our mission as followers of Jesus. Because music takes us out of our heads and into our hearts – into the realm of wonder. There is wonder in this Epiphany story: stars, dreams, angels, intuition, Zoroastrian strangers with symbolic gifts. Our rational minds want to shout, “That didn’t happen!” But our rational minds don’t know it all. Just because a story isn’t historically true doesn’t mean there’s not truth in it.
And the truth is that there is a star that guides us. Holy Wisdom, Divine Light beckons us both inwardly, into where our own heart of wisdom resides – and outwardly, into the world where we can walk unknown paths with un-rational confidence.
Our dreams guide us, too. We’re coming up on Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, and we still remember his dream – not just his speech, but his dream – and we recommit ourselves to making it come to pass. We have our own dreams. Maybe you’re a fan of dream interpretation, as I am. Or maybe you strive for a vision that you hold for yourself, your family, your country. Dreams are real and they are powerful. Matthew knew that when he wrote them into his story.
Epiphany reminds us to pay attention to the mystics – the ancient as well as contemporary ones. Meister Eckhart wrote in the 13th century, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. For God is always needing to be born.” And writing about Christmas, the 20th century mystic, Thomas Merton wrote: “Today, eternity enters into time, and time, sanctified, is caught up into eternity.”
We, too, are caught up in the mystery of Christ – beyond the story of the first Christmas as told by Matthew and Luke; beyond all the trappings that have come to surround this season – we acknowledge our role in bringing to birth God’s dream for the world.
There was a TED Talk that went viral back in the fall. Rabbi Sharon Brous spoke eloquently on the subject: “It’s Time to Reclaim Religion.” The video went viral and engendered tons of discussion. What caught my attention were her opening comments about the state of religion today. She began with religious extremism, but then she said that extremism isn’t the only challenge that religion faces today. She says, “At the very same time that we need religion to be a strong force against extremism, it is suffering from a second pernicious trend, what I call ‘religious routine-ism.’
“That’s when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that’s completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.”
I would add that for Christianity, another pernicious trend is the normalization of a kind of faith that I don’t believe Jesus would recognize. Of the six religious leaders who will stand with the president-elect and offer prayers on inauguration day, two are prosperity gospel preachers and one is Franklin Graham.
This Epiphany, we cannot succumb to ‘religious routine-ism’ or the normalization of a Christianity not true to the gospel. We must step out in faith into the world to claim the name of Jesus as our teacher, the Spirit of Christ as our guiding star. That’s why I want our delegation to the Women’s March to have some kind of identifying button or banner, so that the presence of the faith community is known.
There’s a new Herod in town. But our Divine GPS system is on the job, giving us the new way. It might not be an easy way – I dare say that it won’t be easy at all. But if we’re true to our roots as Christians, we’ll acknowledge that it was never meant to be easy.
The Twelve Days are over. The Nativity set is put away.
The song of the angels has now been stilled, the star in the sky is gone,
the Magi have gone home, and the shepherds are back with their flocks.
And now, now – the work of Christmas begins.
We can’t let our fears of darkness dampen our lights. When political leaders lack a moral compass, we must supply a new ethical and spiritual direction. When religious leaders sell out their faith for power and the return of the good old days, we must chart a different course. Not letting go of the name, “Christian,” despite the foolishness of popular Christian leaders, we must redefine Christian faith for our time to transform the world and to witness to those who have been traumatized or scandalized by the “captivity of the church” in our time.
It is written . . .
Arise, shine, for your light has come! The Glory of YHWH is rising upon you!
Though darkness still covers the earth and dense clouds enshroud the peoples,
upon you YHWH now dawns, and God’s Glory will be seen among you!
The nations will come to your light and the leaders to your bright dawn!
Lift up your eyes, and look around: they’re all gathering and coming to you—
your daughters and your sons journey from afar, escorted in safety;
you’ll see them and beam with joy, your heart will swell with pride.
The riches of the sea will flow to you, and the wealth of the nations will come to you— camel caravans will cover your roads, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;
everyone in Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense
and singing the praise of YHWH.
Our light has come and it is for everyone. Paul proclaims the mystery of God that reaches out to the Gentile world. Today’s Gentiles are immigrants, Muslims, transgendered persons, and the forgotten working poor in inner cities and rural America. Our faith must include the “other” and this faith must be embodied in acts of kindness, political involvement, and community transformation.
It is written . . .
For I, Paul – a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles – am sure that you have heard of God’s grace, of which I was made a steward on your behalf; this mystery, as I have briefly described it, was given to me by revelation. When you read this, you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was unknown to the people of former ages, but is now revealed by the Spirit to the holy apostles and prophets. That mystery is that the Gentiles are heirs, as are we, members of the Body, as are we, and partakers of the promise of Jesus the Messiah through the gospel, as are we. I became a minister of the gospel by the gift of divine grace given me through the working of God’s power. To me, the least of all believers, was given the grace to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ and to enlighten all people on the mysterious design which for ages was hidden in God, the Creator of all. Now, therefore, through the church, God’s manifold wisdom is made known to the rulers and powers of heaven, in accord with the age-old design, carried out in Christ Jesus our Savior, in whom we have boldness and confident access to God through our faith in Christ.
Magi come from the East. They come from another religion and nation. Followers of Zoroaster, trusting the ultimate victory of light over darkness, they come to worship a simple, working-class child. The fullness of God is not to be found in the Jerusalem temple, the halls of Congress, Trump Towers, boardrooms, or even basilicas. God is in these places, of course, but Epiphany reminds us that God comes to us among the poor and vulnerable, in the life of a little child. The Magi reveal the truth of John 1:9 – the truth of God, coming into the world, enlightens all creation and every person.
It is written . . .
After Jesus’ birth—which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of Herod—astrologers from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay homage.” At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him. “Here is what the prophet has written: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,
since from you will come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them, “Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me—so that I may go and offer homage, too.”
After their audience with the ruler, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and paid homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route.