Here we are – coming to the end of the Christmas story – the Kings, who had so much farther than everyone else to travel, have finally arrived. As a child I used to wonder, if these “wise men” were so wise, why didn’t they start earlier…
As is our monastery custom, the kings have taken their place alongside shepherds and
various animals looking at the holy family at the creche. And we can feel a vague sense of Anglican superiority because our kings have made the journey and arrived on the correct day: Epiphany.
Of course we can only feel vaguely superior for a few moments, because if we stop to think about it, we have to realize that the kings, or whatever they may have been, never arrive at that stable and never take their place alongside those shepherds and the sweet little animals.
The problem with the Christmas Story is that there is not one story, but two. In our minds they quite easily mush together. But when we trust our memories, some important details get dropped. Most of what we know as “the Christmas story” comes to us from Luke. Luke has shepherds. His telling of the story is particularly good for a very merry Christmas.
But this Feast of the Epiphany, this arrival of the Magi, directs us to Matthew – the “other” Christmas story. Luke gives us the warm and fuzzies; Matthew turns up the dark.
Matthew spares us lots of detail… Before their marriage, Mary is found to be pregnant, so Joseph is going to quietly end the engagement. But an angel, the first character to speak, gives Joseph the full story. And so, Joseph takes Mary to his home and Jesus is born – at home. No muss, no fuss, no long journey, no stable… I haven’t shortened it much because there isn’t much to shorten… It’s hard to imagine the Hallmark Holiday Special built on Mathew…
That brings us up to today’s feast – wise men, or magi, or astrologers, or kings appear in Jerusalem from “the east” – wherever that may be… They were following a star, but they somehow seem to have lost sight of it. They have but one seemingly innocent question: “Where is the infant king of the Jews?”
Ooops. In the paranoid stew that was Jerusalem at that time, this is an incendiary question.
Herod, King of the Paranoid, gets wind of it and, like any truly insecure despot, he begins to fight. Just imagine if there had been Twitter back then… Herod learns from his minions that Jesus is to be found in Bethlehem. And so, in a touch of irony, it is Herod that puts the wise me back on the right path. Star back in sight off they go to meet Jesus. And this is the epiphany – the manifestation: God in human flesh is revealed.
The wise men, while they’re there, open their treasure chests and give gifts to the baby – gold, frankincense, and myrrh… notoriously inappropriate baby gifts… I tend to assume that the giving of the gifts was the point of the journey – “bearing gifts we traverse afar” as the hymn says… But in Matthew’s actual telling, it is worship that is the first purpose of the wise men. The gifts come almost as an afterthought.
The wise men go home, and the story gets darker. In our calendar the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents has already come and gone, but its proper place in the sequence of things
it has just been triggered. Herod, in paranoid rage and unsure which baby is the infant contender for his crown opts to protect his position by simply having all the little boys in Bethlehem slaughtered.
Mysterious, cold, paranoid, violent… these are the kinds of adjectives that Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus brings to my mind. No cattle lowing… no shepherds proclaiming glory to God… no peace on earth… little if any goodwill toward anyone.
Matthew is so sparse with details that over the centuries we have had to invent them. So first these mysterious visitors acquire a sex – they become wise men; an occupation – they are astrologers or magicians; a number – there are three of them (because there
were 3 gifts); upward social mobility – they are kings; they get names – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar; and perhaps most surprising – they acquire race, or least one does – one of them is black.
The story of Amahl and the Night Visitors is, for me, one of the most moving Christmas stories the Bible never told. As the kings, the night visitors of the title, make their way to Bethlehem, they stop at the home of Amahl – a physically disabled child. Amahl lives with his poor, widowed mother (who has no name). They are destitute… hardly able to feed themselves. They are in no position to entertain royalty. And yet it is their home in which Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar take shelter for the night.
Amahl emerges from the imagination of Gian Carlo Menotti. It was a made-for-television opera – back in the day when television had aspirations. And what do you know? When I dismissed Matthew as fodder for a Hallmark Christmas special, I was wrong – Amahl and the Night Visitors was, in fact, the very first Hallmark Christmas Special… way back in 1951. It’s not exactly Matthew. To be honest it’s not Matthew at all. But it is surely inspired by Matthew…
Amahl and the Night Visitors finds Menotti at his most romantic – the score is lush, the music beautiful. But one moment stands out in a particularly poignant way. When the kings have their first moment alone with the mother they ask if she has seen the child they seek (listen here). They describe him: His skin is the color of wheat, the color of dawn, his eyes are mild, and his hands are those of a king, as king he was born… And she answers yes, she has seen this child. It is her own child: Amahl. And then she laments that nobody will bring her child gifts, though he is sick, and poor, and hungry and cold…
I find that out of a made-for-television Hallmark special, a glimpse appears to me of what
Matthew may be telling me in his hard-to-warm-up-to Christmas story.
The kings are looking so hard for the Jesus they expect, that Jesus, in the form of Amahl, stands right in front of them and they cannot see him.
The good news for these mysterious wise travelers from a far is not that their journey was easy or direct, or that they were such gifted detectives – they needed the help of Herod after all. The good news is that they persevered until they saw God in human flesh.
It’s quite fun and heartwarming to locate ourselves in Luke’s Christmas story – we can be shepherds or cattle and sheep. For the lucky few perhaps Joseph or Mary.
Locating ourselves in Matthew’s Christmas story is more heart chilling, but a good exercise, nonetheless. I can find myself among the magi who wander and get so lost that they turn up in Luke… I can find myself among the greedy minions who cling to Herod for power, even when it calls for committing atrocities. And if I’m feeling very brave, I am Herod – who would rather commit unspeakable acts than tolerate Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, God with me.
Luke reminds us of how much we want Jesus in our lives. Matthew reminds us of how
far we will go to keep Jesus out. The revealing, the uncloaking, the epiphany is something we both desperately long for and furiously work to confound.
Herod is brutal and blunt in trying to keep Jesus out of his life. These days I’d like to say we are less brutal and more clever, though with events at our southern border, or in the townships of South Africa, or at any number of places around the globe where refugees are refused care, where strangers are rejected, I’m not sure we’ve come any distance at all from Herod.
Remember, it is in the face of those strangers that we are to meet Jesus, that we are to have our own Epiphany.
The joyful good news, the Gospel, is not that I’m prepared for Jesus in my life or that our world is in such a good place that Jesus will feel like he’s still in heaven.
The good news is that Jesus is revealed in our world just surely as Jesus was revealed to the Magi in the toxic, paranoid world of Herod. Jesus comes because of our need, not because of our desire and not because of our merit. Our world is often dark, unjust, cruel, and wicked… just the sort of world that needs Jesus.
And so, we pray come Lord Jesus, be revealed to us today because our need is as great as ever.