The Second Sunday after Christmas (Christmas 2B): January 4, 2015
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:1-12
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Time for a quick poll: Raise your hand if you have ever seen a traditional Sunday School Christmas Pageant. Now, raise your hand if you have ever been in a traditional Sunday School Christmas Pageant.
I’m remembering a pageant I was in at Northwest Hills Methodist Church in Austin, Texas –it was probably1967, or maybe 1968. This was a new church started by my father (who, as you may recall, was a Methodist minister). We didn’t have our own building yet – so we had services in the cafetorium of my elementary school. (Do you know the term cafetorium – a combination of a cafeteria and an auditorium?) The pageant, however, was held in a small Sunday School room – actually a bedroom in the house we rented across the street from the school for church offices and meeting space.
I remember a picture of myself from this pageant–unfortunately I don’t know where that picture is now. I was chosen to be a king – the picture shows six year-old Sammy wearing a light-blue bathrobe (as a stand-in for regal garments); I have on my head a construction paper crown, colored with jewels; and I am carrying a box, spray-painted gold to show that is something of value. I remember being very excited about this special role.
The power of the Sunday School Nativity play is that, as children, we get to see ourselves in the story. We try on the roles of adoring shepherds, or singing angels, or observant barn animals, or gift-bearing kings, or, if we are particularly favored by the teacher, adoring parents. We have the opportunity to see ourselves as present before the Christ child, and as capable of serving this most unlikely monarch. These pageants help us begin to form an image of ourselves as disciples of Christ.
And I think we all tend to think of the nativity as a children’s story – one that can be told simply, that children can grasp.
Of course, you know that the story we tell is an amalgamation of gospel stories. The shepherds come from Luke’s version and the kings come from Matthew’s gospel. Tuesday will be the Feast of the Epiphany, when we commemorate the visit of the kings to that humble, yet picturesque stable of our imaginations. Because this day rarely falls on Sunday, we often give it short shrift. But Epiphany is one of the seven Principal Feasts of the Church, so it is right that we spend some time on this little story, and think about what it might mean for us.
Of course, the most familiar Christmas carol associated with Epiphany is “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” which we’ll sing during Communion. It retells the story in a way that is perhaps most familiar to all of us. This hymn has Episcopal roots: The text was written by the Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr., then an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. He was instrumental in organizing an elaborate holiday pageant (featuring the hymn) for the students of the General Theological Seminary here in New York City in 1857 while serving as the seminary’s music director.[i]
One of the main reasons we love this story is the majesty it brings to the lowly manger. Our Jesus is worthy of homage from everyone, even kings! We love the symbolism of these wise and powerful men, coming into this humble setting with elaborate gifts. Oh – the gifts. Those are important too. Of course, they tie to our gift-giving tradition at Christmas. And they also tie to an important tenet we hold: That whatever we have to offer is treasured by God.
This brings me to another childhood memory: The Little Drummer Boy. We’ve probably all heard the popular recordings of that 1941 song sung by Bing Crosby or Andy Williams. Remember? The boy has come to see the Christ child, but because he is poor, he has no gift. When he offers to play his drum, he knows his gift is appreciated because the Christ child rewards him with a smile. I think this song – and this idea that whatever we have and whatever we are is good enough to present to God – was an important piece of my theological foundation as a child.
And there are other facets of the magi story we love that likewise come not from Matthew, but from the lore that has been built up around it.
For example, one of the core elements of this story is that the kings represent the revelation of Jesus to non-Jewish people. In this vein, early commentators added to the story by constructing the kings to be representative of different races and to be carrying gifts of particular significance.
The Venerable Bede, the writer of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, known as the father of English history, was the first to name the kings: Melchior was, “an old man with a white beard”; Gaspar was, “young and beardless and ruddy complexioned”; and Balthazar was, “black-skinned and heavily bearded.” Of course, Matthew, our source material, mentions none of this.[ii]
The gifts of the magi are also interpreted: gold represented an appropriate gift for a king; frankincense symbolized an offering worthy of divinity, and myrrh (that was used by the Egyptians in embalming) testified to the Son of Man who was to die.[iii] Further, the idea of three kings is a fabrication—note that the number of kings is not specified by Matthew. Some early commentators said there were 12 kings!
Clearly, we have added a lot to Matthew’s story over the years—plot points that increase the romance of the story a bit, and also serve the purposes we desire. If we look back at our gospel source, there are a few things we can feel at least more certain about.
First, these wise men were from some place other than the regular milieu of these stories, the area we now call the Holy Land. Matthew says they were from the East. So, the idea that they point to this Messiah as the savior of all humankind, and not just a leader for the Jewish people, seems clear. We can be fairly certain that Matthew includes the kings to help us understand that this is a Savior for the entire world.
Next, the focus on a star would suggest that these learned men were astrologers who studied the heavens for signs of significant events. As Babylon is the seat of ancient astrological studies, some say they may have come from this city-state in what is now Iraq. Other histories from this time record the visits of such astrologers to kings in foreign lands, including a record of such a visit to Nero in 66 C.E.
Then there’s a plot point here that I think we often overlook. Look at verse three: When Herod hears from the kings of the possibility of the birth of a Messiah, we read that he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. Unlike the joy and excitement that Luke’s shepherds exhibit at the announcement of the birth of a savior, Herod’s reaction is fear. Fear!
Why would Herod react with fear? Well the most obvious reason is that, “the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power.”[iv] Herod is threatened by even the mention of a rival king.[v]
But David Lose suggests that, “perhaps it’s also simply that 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 broadening considerably, that there is no longer ‘insider’ and ‘outsider,’ but that all are included in God’s plan for salvation.”[vi]
And in response to this fear, the powers of the world conspire to kill Jesus, first in the slaughter of the innocents that is recorded only a few verses after this passage ends, and then later (and successfully) in the events of the Passion.
Fear motivates a reaction that is as far from the actions of the three kings as possible. I mean, no wonder we forget this part of the story! This is serious stuff.
Fear can cause us to do surprising things. How might fear be affecting you? Has a fear of difference ever caused you to take actions you are ashamed of? Has a fear of failure kept you from trying something that you long to do? Or has a fear of confrontation kept you from fixing a relationship that has gone sour? How are you affected by fear?
Lose goes on to note that while Matthew’s presentation of this fear is sobering, it is also realistic. “We live in a world riddled by fear, a world of devastating super-storms and elementary school massacres, a world where innocents die every day to preventable illness and hunger. In Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi – and the subsequent slaughter of the innocents in the verses to come – Matthew renders an accurate if also difficult picture of the world.”[vii]
And maybe that’s exactly why Matthew includes fear in this otherwise joyful story of the birth of Jesus: Because that’s the truth of our world. But it is equally true that Christ came into the world to beat down that fear, to conquer our fears. “Perhaps Matthew sketches his story of Jesus’ birth – and our lives – with darker strokes precisely so that we might perceive the glory and grace of God’s redemption in Christ all the more clearly, kind of like a bright star shining high in the heavens and leading us to greet our savior and Lord.”
So we need to be just like the children of a Christmas pageant. God bids us to see ourselves in the story, and to heed the call of God to be disciples. And as Christ’s disciples we should give of ourselves, the best we have. We are called to look past our fears to see that this Messiah offers all that is required, everything we need to reach out to the world in confident love.
Praise be for the gift of a story that helps us to better understand the mystery of God, who came to earth in the form of a little child, shining with the brightest star light. Praise God for the story, and praise for Christ, who conquers all our fears with the burning glow of his love. Amen.
[ii] Danaher, William J. Jr, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 212.
[iv] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=653, accessed January 3, 2012.