Sermon for Epiphany, Sunday, January 4 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-7, 10-14; Eph 3:1-12; Mt 2:1-12
“And they left for their own country by another road.”
We dwell a good deal on the voyage of the Magi towards the house where they find the child – Lancelot Andrewes dwells on it, T.S. Eliot dwells on it, I have preached on it in this very place. And there is a great deal to be said about that story, and to be learned from it. But there are other aspects of the story which may have more to do with their journey back – or at least, with their choice of how to go back. For these wandering astrologers, seeking a legendary king for reasons of their own, reasons never made fully clear, have been co-opted into another role along the way; and their choice to renounce that role is a crucial – though ambiguous — part of the story.
It’s not really clear where Matthew thought the wise men came from. Some things about them sound Persian, some Babylonian, some Arabian; we can’t really pin them down to a particular culture. And that may have been deliberate. They are not really from one specific place; they’re from Away. They’re from Foreign. And the weird foreigners come looking for the King of the Jews – the best understanding they can come to, at least at the beginning of their journey, another king, another power among the powers – because of what they’ve gathered from their practice of astrology, a very non-Jewish practice indeed. A forbidden practice, in fact; and yet Matthew, the most Jewish of all the gospels, chooses to highlight this; that it is through this foreign, illicit superstition that these strange figures come to lay their power, however temporarily, down, in a strange place, a marginal place at the empire’s edge.
And the text, quite importantly, doesn’t say that they are kings. This is what the tradition of the church seems to have decided – partly because of the passage from Isaiah which we just heard, partly because of the expensive gifts, partly perhaps because they seem comfortable in Herod’s court. It would be interesting if they were kings, because if they were, it would mark the one single time in all the gospels when the world of great power and privilege enters the narrative in order to do anything other than commit murder. But if they are not kings, and it doesn’t really that Matthew intended them to be understood that way, they are at least accustomed to the world of kings. And they are, in fact, involved in murder. They do not enter that house with clean hands.
For when they arrive at Herod’s palace, their stars, or their own beliefs about what is important, having somewhat misdirected them, they give him, deliberately or unwittingly, information about a potential rival, or at least someone which he, and they, can only understand as a potential rival. And they are enlisted by him as his spies. If they are comfortable in a royal court, they are used to the ways of kings. Certainly, they know about this particular king, Herod ‘the Great’, who was quite famously bloody-minded and inclined towards violence. They cannot be so naive as to believe that Herod really wants to find the child in order to worship him. We can assume that they knew exactly what Herod wanted to do, and that they did not, at least immediately, object to being used towards that end. Afraid to object, perhaps? Or just waiting to see how the story turned out?
And so they come, from far away, tainted with forbidden practices, and tainted far more deeply by their entanglement with the brutal Herod and his vicious court. And they enter the poor house in the small town, where these insignificant people are living, and they fall down. And everything must change. Their whole reality must change, in an instant; and they grasp that the ways of kings as they have known them are hollow, that what they have been seeking is here, is this, is not in the world of power and wealth at all. In that instant, they can no longer be the servants of power, the spies for the royal court. They must go back home by another way.
And yet, ironically, they do as much damage by making that choice, that last-minute right choice, than they would have done otherwise; for they cannot undo the damage they have already done. They cannot take back the consequences of their time in the royal court, their conversations with someone who is a king as this world knows kings. They have given him information, and they have given him something to fear; and now power is going to respond as it always does when it senses a threat, and lash out at the closest and most vulnerable target. Because what comes next is that part of the story that we too often choose to forget – the slaughter of the innocents, the massacre, according to Matthew, of all the children under three years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding area, a massacre which causes Mary and Joseph and their baby to flee into another country seeking refuge. We do not know if this was a historical incident as Matthew tells it. But it is, tragically, one of the most realistic and credible parts of the entire story. It has happened a thousand times, a routine atrocity in an unimportant place, barely recorded, barely remembered. Matthew knew it. We know it.
And the magi, though they tried to avoid complicity, though they tried to get out of the loop of royal violence, tried to do the right thing, are in part to blame. They had been on the wrong road for a long time, not knowing it, not meaning any harm. They let that road take them into that royal court and set the terrible events in motion, and could not call them back. It is a dark story; and it is meant to be. For the light shines in a darkness which is very deep. The incarnate Word does not come into a world which is going along fairly nicely and just needs a minor helping hand, but a world which is impossibly infected with violence and guilt and murder, with compromise and fatal error. Even if we turn from Herod’s road – and we must make that turn – even if we return by another way, too much damage has been done. It is a world in which we, even as we fall down at the feet of the child, cannot be truly good.
And the Word does not come to compete on the field of power, to achieve victory through the defeat and death of enemies, to compel us to goodness against our will. Instead, the Word comes in shattering weakness, so that our own hearts may be broken, and we may come to see that very breaking as the place of truth. The magi in Eliot’s poem describe their experience as “like death, our death.” It is the death of false comfort and imaginary safety. The death of our old understandings of what is important, what defines meaning and reality. But as much as it seems like death, it is a birth, a new possibility of birth. From our broken hearts a new tenderness can be born.
And so we lay it all down. All the magic and superstition we carry in our heads, all the knowledge and skill with which we try to chart and regulate the world, all the travelling and all the seeking, all the compromise and secret agendas and attempts to do the right thing, all the bright toys and all the arts, all our hopes. Everything. We worship the child because there is nothing else left to do. And from that empty-handed worship, we may begin to learn an accurate love.
A love that can acknowledge all of our weakness and darkness, and allow into that that space the light that darkness can never comprehend. A love that can use the knowledge of our failings to be more gentle, more patient, with the weakness of others, and more angry with the powers that exploit or damage the weak. A love which is able to change, through which we can change, little by little, our confused and wandering selves. A love which can turn around. Which can go forward on another road, even knowing how long we have walked along the wrong road, and how much damage has been done. Which can bring us finally home.