January 7, 2018
I have been collecting nativities for many years. We have manger scenes from El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Jerusalem, and Bolivia, to name a few. Whenever I study the biblical Christmas and Epiphany narratives, however, I notice how many differences exist between these accounts and our varied artistic renderings of the stories.
In our nativities, Jesus’ parents, the infant child, and all the animals seem peacefully ensconced in a modest yet sanitary manger, cave, shack, or whatever dwelling fits the particular tradition embodied. The shepherds and sheep seem scrubbed quite clean. The angels are dressed to the hilt. And then there are the wise men, always three in number, although the biblical account provides no record of how many travelers there actually were. Sometimes, these men are dressed as kings, wearing royal robes and crowns, yet the text never describes them as such.
The magi, “travelers from the East,” are learned astrologers and interpreters of omens. Their country of origin is unclear, while theories abound about their geographical home. There is one theory based on the root from which the Greek word ‘magos’, English ‘magi’, comes. That theory identifies these travelers as priests in the sect of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. However, we cannot be sure.
While the texts of many carols conflate the infant birth in the manger with the arrival of the wise men, the two events are not joined. After realizing that the magi do not return to Jerusalem to report their visit to him, King Herod is furious. In a rage, he orders the massacre of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem and its surrounding neighborhood. Meanwhile, the Holy Family escapes, fleeing to Egypt after being warned to leave in a dream.
While these stories come to us sanitized in our nativity scenes, Christmas plays, and many artistic renderings, they do not come to us sanitized in the Gospels. Signs in the heavens induce faith and awe among shepherds and, later, foreign travelers. The vulnerability and glory of a young child is set against the insecurity and cruelty of a ruling king.
Today we celebrate Epiphany, which means “manifestation” or “appearance.” Centuries ago in the western tradition, Epiphany became associated with the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, bearing gifts for the Christ Child. As they greet Mary and kneel to pay homage to the Child, Emmanuel, God-made-flesh, is revealed.
God appears in an unlikely place–in the town of Bethlehem, not the capital city of Jerusalem. God appears in an unlikely person–a child of no means, not a king or a priest. And God appears in unexpected worshipers–outsiders from the East, not insiders from Judea. The Manifestation of God is cracked wide-open and turned upside-down. And all the way through the Gospels, this continues to happen.
The wise men bring gifts for the young child. Some today view them as symbolic of the royal, the prophetic, and the suffering Jesus. Yet for thousands of years in India and Syria, frankincense and myrrh were understood to have medicinal qualities, while gold throughout the ancient world provided a currency useful across geographical boundaries. Could these gifts have become essential to the Holy Family’s survival as refugees in Egypt? It is a possibility.
What shall we take from our narrative today? How shall we hold an unsanitized Epiphany in our hearts? In whose faces do we see the infant Jesus, God made manifest? What religious leaders still mistrust him? What kings still want to destroy him? What outsiders still doggedly follow the star to Bethlehem?
And where do we find ourselves in this story of light shining amid the darkness of dangerous times? Where are we, as we enter 2018?
I invite you to ponder these questions as we enter a few moments of silence. I will then share a powerful prayer written by Don C. Skinner from Prayers for the Gathered Community (p. 37, reprinted by permission of United Church Press, copyright 1997 by Don C. Skinner).
“Out of the night they came, you who command the heavens, following a star whose origin they did not know, whose destination they could not see. Yet they came, true to the light given them, disobedient to false commands. Out of the night they came, into the light of holy mystery, your reclamation in child’s clothing, hope too young to speak, power too fresh to heal. Yet they did not turn away, but left their gifts, trusting in a life yet to be lived. Out of the night of our uncertainty we come, O God, Magi in our time, to the child’s light: not always sure why we come, struggling against the seductive lies of those who would misuse us for evil intent, trusting in the promise that through this child, we too will come to know. Thank you, God of holy design, for their coming; for their steadfastness that would not yield to uncertainty; for their grace in the face of corrupt intent. Thank you for the image of their star, risen anew for us and our time. Thank you for story and promise, conviction and hope, that give life meaning, reveal your intent, and reclaim the world.”