Sermon for Epiphany of the Lord, Sunday, January 03 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
“A cold coming they had of it,” wrote the 16th century preacher Lancelot Andrewes, drawing for his congregation the picture of the Magi travelling over a frozen British landscape, for though he knew very well the geography and history of the Middle East, it was more important to bring them to his own time and place, to picture them at “just the wrong time of year to take a journey … the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off,” a picture T.S. Eliot would later echo in one of his most well-known poems.
And a cold coming we have now, as we arrive at a new year, with so much strangeness at our backs, lockdowns and losses, sacrifice, anxiety, illness, the days short, the sun farthest off. Here we are, and these travelling astrologers with us, searching for meaning in a foreign land.
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 come into Judea, looking—we’re not quite sure why—for the King of the Jews, and looking there 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. Their quest makes very little sense; but it has taken them all this way to Jerusalem.
But 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 familiar with 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 secure in your own position 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 were, we must assume, either stunningly naive, or accustomed 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. All their travelling, all their learning, has led them only this far—lost in a strange land, in thrall to tyrannical power, trying to chart a new course.
And so they come to an unimportant Jewish town named Bethlehem, a place of some historical importance, but a backwater now, as close to nowhere as these travellers could imagine. They come, perhaps uncertain by now why they are coming, but perhaps still driven mostly by curiosity, somewhere between the desire for learning and the desire for simple novelty. And in one of the those little peasant homes, they find an ordinary child.
It is most remarkable, perhaps, that they didn’t just turn around and head back to Jerusalem and accuse the Jewish scholars of putting one over on them. We do not know what it was which caused them to kneel before that child in that poor little village, and to offer him their strange, rare gifts. But kneel they did. We cannot really examine what they saw, what they believed—it is not that kind of story. But we can imagine these strangers, far from home, compromised and uncertain, suddenly reaching the heart of all their searching. Power surrenders to the small, the weak, the obscure. They lay down the symbols of wealth and kingship, here where all good learning leads, the place of love. To say that they went home “by another way” speaks, in part, of lives wholly changed, a restructuring of all their values around the vulnerable, the tiny, the humanity which is the place where God has made a home.
But, of course, the phrase has another and more immediate meaning – now, with their new realization, they are trying to get away from Herod and his obligations. And it is, at least to some degree, too late.
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 miss their appointment with the tyrant, taking a risk in this, knowing Herod could send agents to find them amd punish them. But by doing this, they set off another 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. It is not recorded anywhere else. But it is, tragically, one of the most realistic and credible parts of the entire gospel. It has happened a thousand times, a routine atrocity in an unimportant place, barely recorded, barely remembered. It is happening now in ICE detention centres in the United States; it is happening as well to the elders in the long-term care homes in this very city, and among those working dangerous jobs for poverty-level wages, living in crowded small apartments, unable to avoid the virus. Power’s accidental and innocent victims are everywhere. We must know that 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. Matthew knew it. We know it.
The epiphany, the appearing of God in flesh, rips off the masks of power, and this is painful for us. There are many things, in the world and in ourselves, which we would rather not see, but which have been true for a long time; and it is only the seeing which can make us able to choose otherwise – as the Magi understood at last the real nature of Herod’s courts and went home by another way. And it mattered that they did, it was not useless—too late, it is true, to avoid terrible consequences, and yet not too late to save at least one child, that one child whose life would overturn all the values of the world.
Sometimes we come to realization suddenly, and our lives are changed forever in a moment we can identify, we have our particular Bethlehem. More often, we go on travelling through the imaginary snow, across the imaginary countryside, and gradually understand that we are somewhere different than we had intended, and that this journey has taken on meaning in a way we did not suppose. We are travelling now, through strange territory, uncharted for most of us, the path ahead uncertain. Perhaps we are going home by another way, although the way may be very long and hard indeed. The future is a tiny, endangered infant; but so it has always been.
And so we lay it all down, all of us, strangers and wanderers. All the faith in kings and soldiers, all the bright toys. And we lay down, too, our gifts, the genuinely good things we carry with us, our arts and our science, our human seeking—lay them down in order to take them out of the hands of Herod and of Caesar, and to offer them to love, offer them in the service of the small weak things of the world.
Too late, perhaps, and yet not too late for something to be saved, not too late for the child who is the presence of God to greet us, forgive us, send us out. We kneel before the child because there is nothing else left to do. And from that empty-handed worship, we may begin to learn an accurate love.