Hard to believe that today is the second Sunday after Christmas day. Almost two weeks since we welcomed, again, the birth of Love into the world: in an ordinary baby boy, born probably in the ordinary stall of a cave with animals standing around, placed maybe into a stone trough used as a manger. In the biblical account of this birth, the lowliest of pastoral workers—the shepherds—witness the miracle, along with a couple of angels and probably a couple of exhausted, amazed parents.
Today is also the Eve of the Epiphany: the celebration of the coming of what John called the “light of life” – and the remembrance of the arrival of three very different, very special people (you’ll see they’ve made it to the creche!) to that rough cave where a baby lay—a baby they had been told would become a king.
There is not a lot we know about Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar—Matthew is the only gospeller to tell this story. They probably weren’t kings, but rather scholars and priests—Zoroastrian priests in fact, one of the most popular religions of the 6th century BCE world. They were men who were no doubt leaders in their communities and ultimately valued by Herod for their wise ways. Matthew says they originally came from “the east”—which biblically speaking would be places like Persia (Iran), Arabia (Saudi Arabia) and India. They saw a celestial event—a star they called it—and somehow followed it to Jerusalem, where they were sought out and basically employed by Herod. And as we hear in our gospel, King Herod wanted a favor.
Joe Kay, a UCC minister in Ohio, has written a recent article about the magi and the impact we don’t even know they have on us. They are strangers, he says—foreigners—from different nations, different cultures, different ethnic backgrounds. They cross borders to follow a light and they are shocked with what they find when they get to that cave. Not royalty, as they were told. But a poor family. Refugees, with a newborn. And not much else than a newborn.
Kay points out that the Magi were legally obligated to follow Herod’s commands while they were in his land and Herod knew it. So they did as he asked. They took with them gifts—lavish, precious gifts. Gold, which was a royal treasure one king would give to another. Frankincense, a costly incense used in prayer. And myrrh, a fragrant oil to be used to anoint a king—or anoint a body in preparation for burial. If you notice the positions of these three in our creche, you’ll see that two are kneeling and one has an outstretched arm. They came to the holy baby in worshipful posture, bringing not only the three creature gifts, but also a fourth gift, perhaps the most precious of all: the reverential, awe-filled, gift of themselves.
But, they were warned by a higher authority to leave that place and, as Joe Kay writes, in an act of civil disobedience, they refused to go back to Herod to tell of what they’ve seen – an unjust command in their eyes – and they go home a different way.
These important visitors received an invitation from God, not only to go and find a life-changing moment, but to take the message of that life-changing moment and go home a different way and begin the story of Christianity. Kay asks, “Will we play our own parts in this holy scene, fulfill our roles in this holy story? Do we have the courage to follow the light to places we would have never considered? Or will we choose to remain in the security and comfort of our usual, sometimes narrow lives?
Will we allow our notions of insiders and outsiders to be turned upside-down? Or will we continue to insist that only some people are deserving of God’s love and our own? Can we see Jesus in the face of every poor person and every refugee who knows what it’s like to live in fear and rely on the kindness of strangers?”
Each of us is invited to come to the manger and take our place in the ongoing story along, with the outcasts, the aliens—the shepherds, the Magi, the Holy Family, the border crossers—who started it all. Whether we show up is up to each of us. So how will we continue the Christmas story, the Epiphany story? How are we to proceed? Howard Thurman – author, philosopher, theologian, educator, great civil rights leader, wrote a prayer that points the way for us:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins: ...To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers, to make music in the heart. The work of Christmas has begun.