Magi: Blues, Courage, Shame, and Love2nd Sunday after Christmas
(Sunday before the Epiphany)
January 3, 2016
For Beloved Community
Vernon K. Rempel, 2016
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “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.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The magi are above all the ones who come bearing gifts from afar.
So let’s take a moment to think about gifts that have come to us. Not metaphorical gifts but stuff, stuff as solid as gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
What gift do you remember from a past year?
What gift springs to mind quickly?
What gift seemed most creative, lovingly chosen, valuable?
Chime, silence, chime.
Would anyone name a few of these gifts?
The room into which Jesus was born
Now let’s consider our story.
Do you ever walk into a room with the strong impression that something is already going on? Everyone’s eyes have a layer – a slightly glistening film – of agenda. And then, even more concerning, you begin to suspect that the agenda is you.
That is the situation for Jesus when the child is born, when the child comes into the human room, if you will.
•A mother says “let it be” to an angel.
•An entire host of angels announces “peace on earth, good will toward all people.”
•Wealthy astrologers come from the east and lose their hearts in joy.
•But a king with a heart full of wickedness seeks death.
•And a great city’s religious leaders cower in hypocrisy and fear.
“Obery Hendricks … urges us to view Jesus not solely as the sociological savior of oppressed people, but as a person who lived life as a colonized individual. Jesus understands the pain of terrorism and is acquainted with the structures of disenfranchisement that rob people of their humanity.” So writes Otis Moss III in his brilliant essay Dance in the dark:
Preaching the blues without despair.
Already at birth, the layers are upon the child. This one who will not seek or bring salvation from the tower of security and privilege, but rather will find love when the dust is on the sandals and the very blood runs down the face.
“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Well, it’s a lot to be born into. A lot for a child of peasant parents. A child for whom the outer story is one of being born in cultural shame, mother pregnant before the wedding. A child for whom the inner story is one of infinite dignity and glory – one who will save the people, throw down the mighty wickedness from its throne and bring joy which shall be for all people.
The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary says that there is no way to harmonize the stories of Luke and Matthew (vol VIII, p140). They are unrelated to each other. And this is of course true, if you want to do it scientifically and historically, if you need to press a modern screen into the ancient clay of these stories. But Walter Brueggemann says we must read the text as poets. And the ear of the poet has no trouble hearing the echoes of soul, and longing, and fear, dark deeds and bright courage in both accounts of the birth of Jesus.
So the magi travel, compelled by a star, walking in their bright courage. And when they arrive in the local capitol city, Jerusalem, they run into a king who is deep into schemes and strategies and intrigue for the sake of his own power. “He was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” And so he calls together all the chief priests and scribes of the people. That “of the people” is noted in the commentaries. It may not be only the leaders but also the people who live under that leadership. “Fear is all around,” rather than love being all around in Jerusalem.
Of Jews and Easterners
Now, the ancient story is about Jews in Jerusalem. Herod is sort of Jewish. His father was an Idumean, a person from Edom, who converted to Judaism (New Compact Bible Dictionary p239). He rules in collaboration with Jewish religious leaders over Jewish and other people in his region. It is a story of fear and rejection of Jesus by Jewish people.
But for us it is not about Jewish people. In our western culture, with its immense and horrific legacy of anti-semitism, texts from the Bible about Jews and Greeks will sound unduly anti-Jewish. And these texts in fact were used as rationales for anti-Jewish violence throughout the centuries.
Rather, a translated reading may use the phrase “insiders of social and religious privilege” and “unexpected outsiders” as stand-ins for Jews and Greeks in these stories.
The magi are whoever you are not expecting to come to the party, to show up on the doorstep. They are the Good Samaritan, the woman at the well who shows faith despite her scandalous social situation.
They are wealthy astrologers, so they are not impoverished, and in their own country, they probably are well-respected. But for this story, they are the outsiders, the ones who understand the truth of the miracle of the star and the baby rather than those who are close and who might be expected to understand.
They are a sign to all nations and churches and families that we might be careful to pay attention to those who come from afar, strange though they may seem, and especially when they come bearing gifts of love.
(They are a bridge between Jewish or Hebrew tradition and outsiders. They follow a star, which echoes the language of the star of Jacob in Numbers 24:17. They followed the star as it moved before them and ultimately stopped over their destination, much like Israel followed the pillar of flame and pillar of smoke in the exodus. It is a story that links eastern astrological philosophy and Hebrew prophecy. Matthew is hard at work here, making a bridge, showing who Christ is for all people.)
At the end of the story is this: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” The fear does not abate. Murder is afoot. But the magi will take a different path.
What we seek
When we take a different path, what we seek with our true selves, with the “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln said, is also the very thing that seeks us. In fact, it is not a thing but can better be described as a person. It is a presence, a “thou” as Martin Buber put it, a warmth in the structure of the universe, as Andre Sakharov said. It is the personhood of love.
And to seek this truest love, we need to remember that it is always hidden in plain sight. It is transcribed onto the very surfaces of the world all around us, as David Bentley Hart writes in his extended meditation on suffering and beauty (Beauty and the Infinite). It is like manna on the ground all around, waiting for us to perceive it and to pick it up. But no, it is so much more. For this love seeks us, moves among us in our coffee shops and kitchens, in the daily fabric of our lives, in the small openings that each moment represents. There, and there, and there are the opportunities of love.
It is the star that appears before us. Why are we not simply overwhelmed by it, as the magi were overwhelmed by joy in the presence of the Christ child? Probably because our hearts get colonized by other things, other presences. Shame is a big one. Fear. “Fear not,” the angels always say, but we do fear. We fear and are ashamed. We remember any yesterday of our lives and our souls blush with the things we “shouldn’t have” or “should have.” Mixed in, I hope, with joys and grace remembered. But we do chew on the bone of shame sometimes.
But “love is, actually, all around,” as the movie Love Actually references the British rockers The Troggs. It’s what our hearts really live on, more than entertainment or accomplishment or success. More even than sleep, or shelter or food. None of which we can do without. But without love, to paraphrase the ancient missionary Paul, all else is only a shell.
Think about a time when something has made your heart swell, some warmth or beauty or joy that captures all your attention for a moment. Think how you responded to that.
So it is with the Magi. They know about stars. And when they see this one, they travel with great effort, and at great risk, and give extravagantly, give their wealth, give themselves, because now they are, as the story says, “overwhelmed with joy.”
“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
May some story like this also be our stories.