January 4, 2015
2 Christmas All Years
The Rev. Nancy Gallagher
Merry Christmas. Today is the celebration of the ninth [or tenth] day of Christmas. Our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew is the centerpiece of our celebration of Epiphany, January 6th, where we will gather at St. Thomas Church on Coburg Road for worship and a soup supper. Come and listen to a different perspective on this Gospel text this coming Tuesday night.
Today I want to reflect on the arrival of the Wise Men as part of our Christmas Season. Although we are accustomed to celebrating Christmas on a single day, in both Christian tradition and on the Church calendar, the Christmas season lasts for the twelve days from December 25 – January 6. Advent is the preparation for the coming of Christ, preparing room for God in our hearts and in our lives. The Christmas Season begins with the birth of Jesus and gives us almost two weeks to encounter the extraordinary love, grace, and transformative nature of God’s Incarnation. And to discover what kind of houseguest Jesus will be.
The Wise Men, astrologers, scientists of their day, responded to the star over Bethlehem by bringing gifts to Jesus and his family, which we replicate even now, over 2000 years later with the giving of Christmas gifts. We might have gone overboard here and lost some other facets of the story, such as actually looking for God, going to effort to find this Child King. The Wise Men with their offerings were the first Gentiles to publicly recognize the divinity of Jesus. And they are so overwhelmed with joy; they fall on their knees.
One understanding of the arc of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany is that we are preparing room for Christ to return in our hearts and Christmas is Jesus’ arrival, a second coming into our lives. Frederick Buechner writes about the wild hope of Christmas, the hope that even in the face of overwhelming data, as we long for the presence of God, God will actually show up. Buechner writes, “What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us and our own longing for him.”
Epiphany can be defined as a sudden and profound understanding of something. What are we to understand from today’s readings?
In the Hebrew Scripture reading, Jeremiah says it is about inclusion and gathering the remnants of God’s people from the farthest parts of the earth, those who are blind, those who are lame, those with child, and those who weep. In response, this gathered remnant shall be radiant because of the goodness of the Lord, the young women will rejoice in the dance and the young men and the old shall be merry. The star the Magi followed is part of this prophecy; the Light of the World is part of this prophecy; a ruler who is to shepherd God’s people.
And in the letter to the Ephesians, Paul outlines our destiny. We are destined for adoption; we are destined to be children of God. We are marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. God has made know to us the mystery of his will, to gather us all up in Jesus Christ. Paul calls us saints, which always feels ill fitting to me, makes me uncomfortable like an itchy wool sweater. Yet in that naming of us as saints, Paul names our hearts’ desire, Jesus Christ, the Beloved. We are a people in whose heart is the highway to heaven. We are that remnant who will be gathered up and go from strength to strength.
The presence of these three magi and their quest for God’s messiah announce that the world is changing, that God is approaching, and that nothing can remain the same in the presence of God’s messiah. The arrival of these wondering astrologers signals that the reach of God’s embrace is broad, that there is no longer “insider” and “outsider,” and that all are included in God’s love. This isn’t a new theme in Judaism. From the very beginning of the story God promises to bless Abraham and Sarah that they may, in turn, be a blessing for the world. And now it is happening. The prophecy of Jeremiah is fulfilled and all are becoming one in Christ, and who knows what may change next.
At this earliest baby shower, the magi are overwhelmed with joy and open their treasure chests and give the family gifts. What was your favorite gift that you received this year? For me it was being back with family after two years away. Watching granddaughter Lauren, aged 6, enjoy receiving Monster High Barbie dolls and books that she can read herself. She was overwhelmed with joy and jumped up and down rejoicing.
What gifts do the Magi bring to the Christ Child who lives in our hearts? What gifts should the Wise Men bring us?
I think the gift is in a verse of hope and courage and life; “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
The Magi refused to go in the direction of their fears. Through the language of their dream, through their own God-given, inner voices, they chose life and joy. They trusted their own inner experience of joy, even if that experience flew in the face of the power and authority and expectations of the world. They went in the direction of the Divine, even though powerful Herod ordered them to go in another direction. They found their inner joy, their experience of the Christ, is worth trusting, worth following and worth building a life around. That inner joy you experience when you’re who and where you’re meant to be is the still, small voice of God, beckoning you to live and move and have your being in the Self God has given you and not in what the world expects.
We live in a world fueled by fear, a world of devastating storms and school shootings, a world where innocents die everyday to preventable illness and hunger, a world where greed allows us to take advantage of others. It is precisely this world that God came to. God comes to us who are so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves.
Herod has a thousand scary, lying faces. Whatever the causes, fear is a powerful thing. In response to their fear, Herod, along with the chief priests and scribes, conspire to find the Messiah and kill him. They will not succeed this time, but much later in the story there will again be an unholy alliance between the political and religious leaders of the day who will not only conspire against Jesus but this time capture and crucify him.
And what about us? What does fear do to us? Do we install more security systems in our homes and cars? Do we build more gates or buy more guns? Do we say mean things to each other because we are afraid of being wrong? Do we close our hearts and minds to those who are different?
I know what it’s like to succumb to Herod, to live in fear. And what it’s like to be flooded by joy. I’m learning that any fear I have of Herod is not worth comparing to the delights of trusting my inner experience of joy that is the gift of God and moving courageously, confidently, in that direction.
That’s what God wishes for you. I know it’s a tough move. Herod’s pull is strong. Yet we can recognize the gift the Magi bring us. It’s the possibility of saying “No” to Herod and “Yes” to Christ. It’s the example of saying “No” to fear and “Yes” to joy. It’s the chance of saying “No” to the painful past and “Yes” to the joyful future. It’s the paradigm of trusting your joy enough to build an entire life around it, whether the rest of the world understands and approves or not. And if we can receive that gift, then out of the experience of our lives joyfully lived, we will be more fully and richly able to offer our own gift to the Christ child. And I can think of no gift that would grace him more than for us to trust and to live each day in the joy that is the reason he came in the first place.
So, as a new year begins, as we move from a season of taking stock and move into a season of taking action, we are invited–you and I–to push beyond all the old rules and all the expectations of what can and can’t be, what should and should not be.
I think it takes a lot of courage and a lot of heart to hang on to the hope of Christmas. We’re invited to acknowledge our fears; and it’s important that we do–but we’re invited even more urgently to push past them and to imagine what it might mean to live in the light of the star of Bethlehem, the star of wild Christmas hope.
For the brokenhearted and the broken down and the plain, old flat broke–for all the ways that brokenness can shrink our world until it has no room for anything but pain and worry–the light of wild Christmas hope reveals a path, a path back to the world.
For the victims of injustice and oppression, the victims of those subtle and the not-so-subtle exclusions that some know all too well and others seem as if they cannot see at all, the light of wild Christmas hope is a reminder that change is going to come.
For those who are afraid to attempt new things–too afraid of who might see, too afraid of who might laugh, too afraid of the smirk and the diminishing comment or the raised eyebrow, the light of wild Christmas hope reveals a gallery of other faces, eager to cheer, eager to help, and eager to undertake the journey, too.
Whatever our fears may be, let us remember that we can live our lives in a new light. May all twelve days of Christmas remind us that Jesus, the light of the world, has arrived in all his rule-breaking, table-turning glory, helping us to see all things, and even ourselves, in new ways. It is the greatest news that ever was, is, or shall be. “Take heart,” Jesus says, “It is I; have no fear.
Fredrick Buechner, Word, published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words retrieved from frederickbuechner.com, retrieved 12-26-14
Mark Sargent, The Gift of the Magi, 1-2-2005 http://day1.org/919-the_gift_of_the_magi
David Lose, The “Adults-Only” Nativity Story 12-30-2012 https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509