Feast of the Epiphany

Sermon for Feast of the Epiphany, Sunday, January 01 2017, 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

The oddities of the calendar mean that we’re celebrating the Epiphany – the arrival of the Magi – very early this year, on the day normally observed as the Naming of Jesus. Normally, the Magi would have a bit more liturgical time to get here; in Matthew’s account, they took quite a long time indeed, and although it is common to have shepherds and Magi in the same depictions of the nativity, they are two quite different stories, one set in a stable on the very night of Jesus’ birth, and one in a house some time later on.

And the intention of the two stories is different, as well. Luke’s story takes place entirely among the poor, and it is about the sudden and astonishing good news which only the poor can fully understand. It is set wholly in that world of the little ones, overlooked by power, beloved by God. But Matthew’s story is about a collision of worlds – in fact, about several different collisions.

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 of the time. And that may have been deliberate. They are not really from one specific place; they’re from Away. They’re from Foreign. They are the exoticized “East”. They are travellers, pagans, strangers. They come looking for the King of the Jews because of what they’ve gathered from their practice of astrology, a very non-Jewish practice indeed, in fact a practice specifically forbidden to Jews.

So that is one of the collisions. Matthew, the most Jewish of the evangelists, writing for a primarily Jewish-Christian audience, chooses to show us, as the first people to recognize Jesus, foreign Gentile astrologers, blatantly strange, violators of religious law, those his listeners would have found it most difficult to recognize and accept as part of the community. The different, the unexpected, the inappropriate; this is always the paradox of God’s appearing, never in the right place, never to the right people.

And yet, strangely, the worlds come together. Herod, confused by the scenario with which these astrologers have presented him, brings in some Jewish scholars, and in a curious bit of interfaith dialogue enforced by royal authority, they work out the paradoxical solution – that this new king, as they are still imagining the child to be, will be born not in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem, an obscure little town on the edge of the empire; of some historical importance, granted, but not a place where anything significant is meant to happen any more. It is a nice subtle picture Matthew draws here, of two cultures working, however reluctantly, together, combining their different ways and different knowledges, in order to get onto the right road at last, to get to the right place which none of them had expected.

But there is even more than that going on. Because the Magi are foreign in another, perhaps even more significant, way. They come from that world of wealth and privilege and power to which Jesus did not, and never would, belong. They carry gold and precious spices with them. They are looking for a king, and they are comfortable in the courts of kings; it seems natural to them, when they arrive in Jerusalem, to drop in on King Herod. You had to to be fairly comfortable with your own position of power to pay a drop-in visit to any member of the Herodian dynasty — particularly when the purpose of your visit is to announce that you’re looking for his successor, and you’d like a bit of help with that. The Magi, we must assume, were either stunningly naive, or used to playing complicated political power games. Matthew may have intended either reading, or left us deliberately straddling both.

And by the time they leave Herod’s court, they have been enlisted as his spies. So far, all their learning and all their longing and all their travelling has ended up putting them into the hands of a brutal dictator, made into his tools. Knowingly or not, willingly or not, we cannot tell. But they set out again, with orders to bring back news of the location of the king’s rival to the famously bloodthirsty king.

And they come to a small house in a small town, and find the child of a poor family, and everything changes. We do not know, from Matthew’s brief account, how much they understood of what they saw. But the narrative suggests that they did understand at least in part; something in them realized that it was not that this poor child would grow up to seize political and military power in the way of kings, but that everything they had known about kings up to this point was wrong. What they have been seeking is not in the world of wealth and power at all; it is here, it is this, small and vulnerable, the child who would become a man who would reveal the hollowness of all of power’s claims. And they lay down their gifts and fall to their knees.

But the story is not over. They have spent time in the courts of worldly power, and they have allowed themselves to become part of power’s game, and there is no good way out. They can no longer be Herod’s spies, but they cannot get themselves out with clean hands. They do what they can – they go home “by another way”, taking a risk in this, knowing Herod could send agents to find them. But by doing this, they set off a catastrophe — 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 as refugees into another country. 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. We will remember that massacre particularly at our Wednesday noon Mass on January 11th; but we must always remember it as part of the story. 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.

And the incarnate Word, even as a tiny child, steps into the middle of that violence and takes its consequences, becomes one with every refugee now fleeing Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo or any other land at war. Becomes one of power’s victims, because that is the only place that love can be. Our hearts must break.

The epiphany, the appearing of God in flesh, rips off the masks of power, and this is painful for us. On this first day of 2017, we remember how many things we had not wanted to see were revealed to us in the last year – the racism and resentment which put Donald Trump into power, the indifference and selfishness which allowed Syrian children and their parents to drown or to die under a rain of bombs and bullets, the ongoing colonial violence across Turtle Island revealed at Standing Rock and at Attiwapiskat. And surely, for each of us, things we had never wanted to see about ourselves, for if we struggle with faith honestly, we will learn much that we would rather keep hidden. The magi in T.S. Eliot’s famous 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, where God is to be found, how we are to respond to this world. 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 of us, strangers and wanderers. 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 power, 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.