Feast of the Epiphany; 5 January, 2020
Is 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-7, 10-14
Eph 3: 1-12; Matt 2:1-12
Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister
Can I let you in on a secret?
I am tired of kings. Kings, princes, potentates, presidents: you can have them all. This week has shown us all too clearly what can happen when a person is given power which he believes to be unrestrained: a brutal man has been killed in violation of international law; soldiers have been sent; and now we are living amid wars and rumors of wars. All around us people are pleading for peace, and here in Canada, the Iranian diaspora are living in fear for their families. This would be horror enough if the killing had been provoked by immediate security concerns, but it looks more and more likely to have been a diversion intended to draw our attention from a new cache of evidence which significantly exposes that man’s corruption. And it is hard — truly hard — to believe that three ancient astrologers have anything to say to the world in which we live.
Or, perhaps, they say too much.
Today is the Feast of Epiphany, when the church celebrates the first hint that the good news of Jesus will reach beyond the Hebrew people among whom he was born, and grow to encompass all the peoples of the earth. It is one of the major feasts of the church, but it is actually the second feast we’ve had in the last few days. The first was Holy Name, a re-christening of what used to be called the Feast of the Circumcision. It marks the eighth day after Christmas, the day on which Mary and Joseph brought the infant Christ to the Temple to be circumcised according to the dictates of Jewish ritual law.
Circumcision is not a comfortable topic, but I regret the re-naming of this feast, because that uncomfortable ritual presents us with a truth we would too often prefer to forget: that in order to be close to God, in order to be fully claimed by God, something of who we would have been without fidelity to God must go. Intimacy with Christ, the lived experience of God with us, imposes demands on our life which are costly. It’s not all stars and angels and crowns of gold; it is also the iron bite of the cross. And so we come to Epiphany, to these wise men come from afar to kneel at the feet of the Infant and pour out upon him the best of what they could think to bring. Tradition makes them kings and gives them names: Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar. Scripture is more reticent, leaves them as anonymous seekers, people like us, people who saw the star and allowed it to pull them away from their family and friends, away from their daily concerns and duties, and found themselves on a cold and dark road, traveling toward something they sensed might be hope.
I find that transformation suggestive. Not about them. About us. It implies that we are not comfortable allowing ordinary people, or even scholars, to represent humankind; at crucial moments, we crave symbols of power. We make these men monarchs even if they were not, because we seem to believe that only a monarch can pay respects for a whole people.
And yet, in seeking the king of kings, what did the magi find, if not the representation of their own naked humanity? Not dressed up in robes, not clothed in gold; just a child. That encounter is captured in the words of one of my favorite Christmas carols:
Dost thou in a manger lie, who hast all created,
Stretching infant hands on high, Savior long awaited?
If a monarch, where thy state,
where thy court on thee to wait?
Scepter, crown, and sphere?
Here no regal pomp we see, naught but need and penury:
Why thus cradled here?
When the magi arrive at the manger, they fall on their faces in wonder. (That’s what the Greek means.) And then they open their treasure-chests and present Jesus with gifts: gold, to crown a king; frankincense, the incense one would burn to acknowledge a deity; myrrh, redolent of the tomb. The gifts are rich, the lavish outpouring of their reverence and awe, but they are also beside the point. In giving them, the magi seek to honor this God-made-flesh in the only language they have, the one they already know: the language of power and dominion. They seek to clothe the appalling poverty of God by the wealth they lay upon him. But what did God come to bring, if not that very poverty?
It is precisely at this point that we as human beings, and the church as an institution, tend to flinch and look away. We have tried so long to dress God up in the trappings of authority: in magnificent buildings, and sumptuous vestments, in music fit for an emperor. And I love all those things: they speak to my heart. I’m here, after all, and not in a simple country parish! And those things, those exquisite things, are of genuine value as signs of our reverence for God — our attempt, like that of the Magi, to take the best of what we have and are and pour them out in love for Jesus. But they are symbols of us, not of God. The symbols God gave us are more austere: a naked infant, born in a manger; a tortured man, writhing on the cross; an empty tomb, with only a few folded cloths to show where God once lay.
Those symbols, and not the gifts of the magi, point us toward the true action of God: to accept us in all our poverty, to be with us in all our pain, to empty the grave of its sting. So much of today’s Gospel is about the Magi that we are afforded only one glimpse of the infant Christ, three brief words: “the young child.” It is so much easier to look at the men who represent our world than at the god who comes to redeem it. But until we can accept the poverty of God, we cannot accept our own. Until we understand the nakedness of God, we cannot understand our own. Until we enter into the vulnerability of God, we cannot accept our own and enter into our salvation.
There is a strange thing about the gifts of the magi: we never hear about them again. Later in the story, when Jesus is asked to pay taxes, he does not reach into his treasure chest for gold; rather, he sends Peter to catch a fish that has a coin in its mouth. When Jesus is about to be crucified, a nameless woman pours oil of pure nard upon his feet; there is no word of the frankincense the magi brought along. When Jesus is entombed, the women bring spices; they do not seem to use the myrrh. The clear implication is that when the Holy Family fled, these gifts may have remained behind. Because when our lives are on the line, we grab each other, not things. When our lives are on the line, we do not need money or power or monarchy; we need Jesus. The true gift — the gift of God — had already been given: the child Jesus, naked as he came. God with us — with us as we are, not as we would wish to be. God loving us as we are, not as we would wish to be. Only God’s radical acceptance of our frail and broken humanity can free us from our grasping: for power, for domination, for wealth — for the very things Jesus laid aside.
What would it look like for the church to worship God in all God’s nakedness, not God dressed up in trappings we can understand, but God at the mercy of kings and tyrants, God troubled for the lives of his kin who may be subjected to war, God stripped down to the tenuous life we live? What acts of discipleship might that spur us to undertake? What might it spur you to undertake? I have heard and preached so many sermons about how we are to follow in the steps of the Magi, leave all our attachments behind and go to seek the face the Christ — and that’s all true! — but in the end, we are not called to be the Magi: we are called to walk in the steps of Christ.
The theologian J.B. Metz reminds us that “Christ did not ‘identify’ with misery or ‘choose’ it: it was his lot.” ¹ But that identification was necessary, because it is the ground of all true hope, which always “emerges in the shattering experience of living ‘despite all hope.’” Perhaps you’ve experienced that yourself; I know I have. And the hope which God gives is always provisional: the bread we need this day, not enough bread to eat for ever. Even the prophet Isaiah, crying out that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us, reminds us in the next verse that the world is still in darkness. Christ comes as a candle in window, or the first faint light of dawn.
Following Christ calls for a fundamental humility, which, at its root, means groundedness. That naked child grounds us in our finite existence. He does not make us gods; he does not hold out enough light for us to see forever. He comes to us as we are, and redeems us as we are, and calls us to accept one another, yes, even as we are. It is only when we cease trying to escape the finite bounds of our humanity that we will truly be free to live it. Only when we stop trying to be like gods that we will begin to be like Christ. For the gift of God was not deity, but flesh and bone and the hope of love.
I’ll leave us with a bit more of the carol:
For this world a love supreme brought me to this stable;
All creation to redeem, I alone am able.
By this lowly birth of mine,
sinner, riches shall be thine,
matchless gifts and free;
Willingly this yoke I take, and this sacrifice I make,
Heaping joys for thee.
1. Poverty of Spirit, 38.