Readings Isaiah 60.1-9, Matthew 2.13-18
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Epiphany means showing, making something manifest. If Christmas is about the extraordinary act of God coming among us in the birth of Jesus, then Epiphany is the showing of that act to the world, and it begins with the story of the visit to Jesus of the wise men, or ‘Magi’.
This festival of joy comes at a time of low ebb at the start of the year. If you strained every muscle to do the perfect Christmas, by now, reality has begun to bite back: the first toys have been broken, the first pieces have deserted the jigsaws. This last week will typically have seen a spike in bookings for relationship counselling and even divorce lawyers. January brings the day deemed by some statistical whizzkid to be the most miserable in the year, and then comes national sickie day, a particular Monday that sees the year’s highest number of no-shows at work. How did Christmas become such an oppressive fantasy of perfection?
Well, it’s not the Bible’s fault. Matthew might have painted a perfect Christmas scene to tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Some ancient biographers did that, writing the lives of great figures that showed their births and childhoods as charmed and serene. Not with Jesus, though. Matthew tells of the birth of the King of the earth, but it’s another king, Herod, who glowers over the scene, and after this morning’s visit of the wise men [the reading at the Parish Eucharist at 9.30am], the boy king has to be spirited away to exile while innocents suffer in Bethlehem, as Herod orders a children’s pogrom, trying to catch Jesus in a net of infanticide.
Here we see that it is the real world, our uncharmed and troubled world, that Jesus is born into, where the innocent can become refugees, or even lose their lives when they get in the way of the powerful. After the service we shall welcome Leila Sansour, a film-maker from modern Bethlehem, and we shall see and hear something of the present-day troubles (as well as some signs of hope) which surround that place to which we go in heart and mind each Christmas. So if Christmas has been hard, or if it has been good but the wider troubles of life are still there, or if our brothers and sisters in modern Bethlehem or other parts of Middle East are especially on you heart tonight, then see in tonight’s story – whether you believe it or not – the realism of Christian faith.
And if you do believe, see that for those who follow Jesus there will be no charmed immunity. He offers no aspirin for the soul to take away the pain of being human. But he does show us God, for where he is, God is. Jesus shows us where God has always been – and where God always will be – among us: for in all our afflictions God is afflicted; God’s presence saves us, lifts us up and carries us through all that weighs us down. But how does that happen? How does God pilot us through rough waters? And how are we to follow the purposes of God?
In part of what may be part of the most quoted passage of English outside the Bible, Shakespeare poses the classic choice:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
and by opposing end them…
Put up with it? or fight to put an end to it? It is a choice that presses upon many today in the lands where Matthew’s story is set, as it does upon many of us in what may be the more discreet troubles of life. Sometimes, though there is a further possibility, and we see it in this story of the wise men.
There are people who are committed, and there are people who are wise. The story of the Magi visiting Jesus is a story of people who are both. By the time we pick things up, they have followed the star, told Herod who they are looking for, found Jesus, paid him homage, and – warned not to return to Herod as they had agreed, because he is plotting Jesus’ destruction – they have gone home by another route. These men are devoted, committed to their cause: they endure a long journey, and they offer costly gifts – indeed they offer themselves – to the baby they find at their journey’s end. They are bold enough to go to Herod with news of a rival king of the Jews, but they do not take leave of their wisdom, and when they are warned not to confront Herod again they slip away. The church makes much of its martyrs, ‘the seed of the church’ (as Tertullian called the in the 2nd century), men and women and young people who are willing, typically in a single moment of courage, to hold fast to their faith even to death. But this is not what God asks of the Magi.
Blazing, brave devotion can be a glorious thing, but it can also burn out your powers of judgement, and your act of witness becomes fundamentally irrelevant or even destructive. Being sensible saves you from that, but it can also give you an unending supply of reasons never to come off the fence, and never be committed at all.
We tell this story because God calls us to be like the Magi, to have that same devotion, that same boldness, and promises us the strength we need to attain it. But God also calls us to be like the Magi in their wisdom: to be people of conviction but also of judgement. Sometimes God will ask us to endure those who oppose God’s purposes, which is hard; sometimes God will call us to confront them, which is hard in another way; and sometimes God will lead us to by-pass them, not to combat their power, but to move beyond its reach, to leave it peripheral, relegated to the sidelines as the action moves somewhere else.
The trick, of course, is to know which to do when, and this in a world where pain-free solutions are rare. Even the wise men’s decision to give Herod the slip contributes to the fate of the children of Bethlehem. In the real world, the big decisions are usually about who gets hurt, when hurting no-one is simply not an option. For some of us it’s not too hard to be brave and stupid; for many of us it’s easy to be sensible and not brave; it is quite a thing to be brave and wise. So as we go in heart and mind to Bethlehem tonight, to offer our gifts to Christ, and to hear the voices of those in that place today, we must ask for gifts in return.
One of the great voices of the ancient Middle East, St Maximus the Confessor, knew what gifts are required for those who seek courage and wisdom: he asked God for ‘a heart of fire, and a mind of ice’.
‘Whether ’tis nobler…’ Hamlet, Act 3 scene 1
Leila Sansour is chief executive of Open Bethlehem. www.openbethlehem.org