The Journey to the Manger
Second Sunday of Christmas
January 3, 2016
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The poet Denise Levertov has a wonderful, short reflection on God being born in Bethlehem as a baby. God enfleshed. Listen:
On the Mystery of the Incarnation by Denise Levertov
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
[Denise Levertov, from The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes]
Her take on the reason for God living among us as Jesus / is that God has “compassion for our ugly failure to evolve.”
Now—today--our excellent little story of the magi coming to visit the Christ Child showcases in 12 verses the classic tension between good and evil. The poster-child for ‘our failure to evolve’ is Herod the Great, the puppet-king of Israel. He’ll stop at nothing to eliminate all competitors for his power, even going so far as to hunt down and kill innocent children. If you read further in Matthew’s gospel, you see that that’s exactly what happened. After the Magi returned home by another route and escaped from Herod’s clutches, / and after Joseph high-tailed it to Egypt with Mary and the child, / Herod had all the babies in the area slaughtered—just to make sure he eliminated the competition. The babies are technically the first people in Christian history to die for Jesus—the first martyrs. We call them the Holy Innocents. This awful story shows that “the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power.”
[David Lose, “the Adults-Only Nativity Story,” in the column “Dear Working Preacher,” December 30, 2012, on www.workingpreacher.org]
These lost babies are a stark reminder that the innocent still suffer and lose their lives, caught up as pawns in games of power between people, groups and nations. And the only thing that can give us comfort is that we know / God blesses and comforts them all. The story should also remind us that each one of us has the capacity to be like Herod—to be paranoid, to be Machiavellian, to be fiercely self-protective—not to mention downright mean-spirited and nasty.
Our ugly failure to evolve. It’s sobering, isn’t it?
Now, there’s something I alluded to already that I want to revisit for just a bit. It’s the idea of Joseph fleeing with Mary and Jesus into Egypt to get away from Herod. For those years away from home the Holy Family were refugees, fleeing from a despot who was intent on destroying their son.
They were Middle-Eastern, swarthy-skinned people running for shelter into another land. We’d do well to carry that thought around with us and chew on it.
* * *
Now let’s turn to the good, and think about how the good also resides within each of us.
Let’s consider those magi who journeyed so far and brought those mysterious and symbolic gifts for the Child. They may remind us of all the good in the world—of the lengths that people will journey to find God.
Who were the magi? It’s likely that they were astrologers and interpreters of dreams who came from Babylon (present-day Iraq) or Persia (present-day Iran). Isn’t that interesting? The holy quest of faith is symbolized today by people from Iraq or Iran. They were probably “pagans”—followers of Zoroaster, a Persian or Babylonian who preceded them by a good 600 years or more. Zoroaster wrote on ethics—or how to live the best life—and the pathway to God. That’s something to chew on, too.
Our gospel doesn’t fill in very many details. We don’t know how many Magi there were. Oh, we say 3 kings…but that’s because they brought 3 gifts. Maybe there were more, maybe less. They probably weren’t kings, either. One scholar thinks that there may have been lots of magi, traveling in sizable groups [Paul J. Achtemeier, Feasting on the Word for Matthew 2:1-12, Year C, volume 1, p. 213.]
And maybe some of them were women. That’s also possible.
But the one thing we do know is that they first learned of the Holy Child from watching the stars. As proper astrologers and maybe even astronomers, they watched the night skies keenly. Zoroastrians even worshipped the stars. The supernova they identified drew them out of the East and toward the Promised Land to search for the child. But it wasn’t an infallible guide. They still got lost and needed to ask for directions.
It’s significant that they were NOT Jews. They came from foreign lands and didn’t know the religion of the Chosen People. That makes quite a statement, doesn’t it? It says, in the words of one scholar, that “any seeker, whether by chance or authentic pursuit, can find his or her way to the manger.” It also reminds us that “surely even the most well-schooled Christian needs regular reminding that no one is above another, that no one has a corner on the complete truth, and that even the baptized travel a path with many distractions, some leading to disastrous ends with pious-sounding names.” [both quotes: Stephen Bauman, Feasting on the Word for Matthew 2:1-12, Year C, volume 1, p. 214]
So—that implies that anyone…seekers, dabblers, evangelical Protestants, yogis, Buddhists, Orthodox Christians, snake handlers, Roman Catholics, agnostics, Muslims, crystal lovers, mystics, Hindus, Sufis, happy-clappy Charismatics, Southern Baptists, psychics, atheists, and sometimes even Episcopalians, can all find their way to the manger. God will use what we know and love to draw us into God’s heart. And we’ll end up in the same place, if we follow our higher and better desires.
Let’s each ask ourselves: have we found our way to the manger yet? To that place of encounter with Jesus—as child, as friend, as suffering servant? Have we seen him? Do we know him?
The key to the journey is to look honestly. And the goal is right before our very eyes. Today we have another chance to take him into our selves and spend time at the manger.
Now, I can’t pass up the opportunity to point out that just as Matthew’s gospel features the gentiles coming in to see the Christ Child in his babyhood, so the same gospel ends as the resurrected and Cosmic Christ gives the Great Commission to his friends to go OUT to the gentiles. He commands them, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” [Matthew 28:19-20]
* * *
May we find him in the manger, adore him at the cross, and take him into ourselves at the Communion rail. And may we take him out to people we encounter. May we help each other evolve from ugliness toward godliness.