January 1, 2017
One of the lasting memories of many Winnipeggers is seeing the huge figures of the three kings on the roof of the Great West Life building, following the star. Those wise men are remarkably durable, because they are still there, year after year, in the same place. The star has been replaced at least once, but otherwise the figures endure unchanging through time. According to a story on the CBC website, the kings have graced the roof of the Great West Life building since 1973, which is odd, because they seem to have been part of Christmas in Winnipeg ever since I can remember. Perhaps my confusion stems from the fact that the figures remind me of the story, which is certainly part of what I’ve “always” remembered about Christmas.
What I didn’t first notice but have observed in recent years is the extent to which, in popular imagination, the birth stories of Matthew and Luke have been harmonized and even conflated. In Christmas pageants the angel Gabriel is kept busy flying between Mary and Joseph, even though Matthew says quite clearly that the revelations from God are given to Joseph, not Mary, and come to him through dreams, not from an angel. These same pageants feature the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, usually incorporating a donkey, though Matthew says nothing about any such journey. Wise men arrive hot on the heels of the shepherds to worship Jesus in the manger, even though Matthew never mentions shepherds, and explicitly says that the wise men entered the house where Jesus and his mother were living. In fact, Matthew understands Joseph and Mary to be living in Bethlehem, which makes sense since Joseph is descended from King David, whose home town was Bethlehem. Matthew knows nothing of their residence in Nazareth until after their return from Egypt, when Joseph decides to relocate to Galilee in the north to avoid the new ruler Archelaus, who seems every bit as dangerous as his father Herod.
This harmonization is evident also in many of our Christmas carols, for instance “The First Nowell”, which has the shepherds receiving the angels’ greetings, then seeing and following the star to the manger, the same star followed by the wise men. Luke’s Christmas story says nothing about a star, and Matthew knows nothing of any shepherds.
Something else I’ve noticed is the addition of imaginative details to Matthew’s story itself. The magi were given royal status and called kings, perhaps stemming from today’s Psalm with its references to kings. Their number was fixed at three, from the three gifts presented. Sometimes the kings were given names, and sometimes they were portrayed as representing different races. The gifts themselves were also given symbolic meanings.
Now, there is nothing wrong with all this. Such imaginative exercises represent what Christians have always done – to retell and reinterpret the good news in ways appropriate to different times and cultures. Pointing out differences between the two stories is not to pooh-pooh harmonization and imaginative colouring. But it is helpful to recognize that, beyond the basic details of the names of Mary and Joseph and the location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, Matthew and Luke tell different stories. There is value in reading each one separately. When we do this, we can pay attention to details that might otherwise escape our notice, and so add to their power. Whenever we read scripture, there are three questions that are a kind of framework for us: what does the passage say? What did it mean in the original context in which it was written, and what does it mean for us today? These questions should be the framework for any reading of scripture. What I would like to do today, then, is to lay aside popular imaginative colouring of Matthew’s story and let Matthew speak for himself. What does this story say? Why did Matthew use it in his gospel? What does it say to us?
Let’s look at some of the elements that have gone into the making of this story.
First, there is the primitive Christian proclamation of Jesus as descended from King David, a descent necessary to qualify him as the Messiah. As Donna reminded us in her sermon two weeks ago, Matthew’s gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus that establishes his connection to the house of David. This proclamation is further expressed in the tradition that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the ancestral home of David.
Second, the tradition also says that Jesus’ birth took place near the end of the reign of Herod the Great. Embedded within this time frame is the memory of Herod’s character, and of his pathological fear toward the end of his reign of potential usurpers and assassins. It was commonly acknowledged in ancient times that the births and deaths of kings were heralded by astronomical events – portents in the heavens. The magi may have associated the star with the sign of the zodiac governing Judah, the land of the Jews. If there were contacts between the scholars of Syria, Persia or Babylon and the Jewish communities there, there would have been knowledge of the Jewish expectation concerning the Messiah and his reign of peace. The magi interpret the star as heralding the birth of the new king of Judea, an announcement guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of Herod. Herod in this story is the ruler who seeks to destroy the infant saviour, just as Pharoah in ancient Egypt sought to destroy the infant Moses.
A third element in the story is, of course, the magi themselves. The Greek-speaking gentiles of Matthew’s time, some of whom belonged to Matthew’s church, shared a belief that the east was the source of wisdom. The magi are said to have come “from the east”. They were likely astrologers, given their interest in observing the stars. Magi were also thought to have the power of interpreting dreams and visions. They are people of more than earthly wisdom. They are in touch with a larger reality. The point for Matthew is that they are gentiles. Wise men from “the nations” are drawn to Jesus; they kneel before him and pay him homage. They represent the best of pagan wisdom and the human religious impulse which has come to seek God, prompted by a revelation in the realm of nature, as Paul suggests in the opening of his letter to the Romans. But the revelation the magi receive is incomplete. They naturally assume that a king would be born in the capital city, and so they travel to Jerusalem. They need the further revelation which can be found only in the scriptures, the revelation given to God’s chosen people, to continue on to Bethlehem and the object of their search.
A fourth ingredient is the star as a symbol of the Messiah. Matthew draws on a story from the time of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. The seer Balaam is summoned “from the east” by Balak, king of Moab, to pronounce a curse on the Israelites who are passing through his territory en route to the promised land. Although not an Israelite, Balaam is given a true spirit of prophecy, for he pronounces not a curse but a blessing: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near – a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.” Already before Jesus’ time, this verse was understood to mean the Messiah, and this text shaped the story of the magi before Matthew picked it up. The message of Balaam to Balak is, “You can’t stop these people.” The implied message of the magi to Herod is the same: “You can’t stop this.” Herod tries, but ultimately fails to destroy Jesus.
The star of course is a source of light, and the Christmas stories are full of images of light. Various astronomical explanations of the star have been offered: a comet, a nova, or a conjunction of planets. But these attempts fall short. The star does not simply shine; it rises, it moves, it disappears and reappears, it moves again, and then it stops. It guides the magi to Jesus with the precision of a GPS unit. Matthew is making a theological statement: the birth of Jesus is the coming of light into a darkened world, the light, as Isaiah says, to which the nations are drawn. The darkness seeks, but fails, to extinguish the light. Matthew in narrative form is saying the same thing as John in the prologue to his gospel: Jesus is the light of the word. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Why did Matthew include this story in his gospel? There are two reasons. The first is found in today’s epistle reading from Ephesians. The unity of Jews and gentiles in the church was something Paul spent his whole ministry working for. It was an accomplished fact in the church for which Matthew wrote. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is intended for all people. Perhaps portraying the magi as representing different races is a way of illustrating this. As Ephesians says, “the mystery (or secret) is that the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The story of the magi is a symbolic way of expressing this truth.
The second reason is found within the story itself. Matthew is writing to explain the Christian mystery to a believing community. Writing some fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, he has first-hand knowledge of what happens when the gospel is presented to people. Some believe and pay homage to the Christ; many more reject both the message and the preachers with violent, hostile opposition. There is a certain irony in the story, in that it is gentiles who recognize the significance of the star and come seeking the one it heralds, even though their understanding is only partial. Meanwhile, those who have the scriptures and ought to know, seek to put to death the one about whom they have been told.
Matthew is echoing the history of his own time and the experience of his own church, but he is also thinking of the passion and death of Jesus. Ranged in opposition to the newborn child are the secular ruler, the chief priests, and the elders – exactly the same coalition that will condemn Jesus as an adult. The magi come looking for the King of the Jews – and that title is not used again until it is hung above the head of Jesus on the cross. In both instances, God confounds the rulers assembled against his anointed one – by sending the infant Jesus away to safety and bringing him back, and by raising him to life at the resurrection. The story of the magi and the subsequent murder of the children of Bethlehem is a passion narrative placed in Jesus’ infancy. It is the gospel in miniature. If the story is to be complete, it must include suffering and rejection as well as acceptance and worship. I suggest that you read chapters one and two of Matthew as a unit, because they form an overture or introduction to the gospel as a whole.
And what about us? How are we to read and hear this story?
First of all, when we are presented with the gospel, the story of what God has done in Christ, we, like those who have heard it in every time, are given a choice. How are we going to respond? With acceptance and worship, with rejection and persecution – or with apathy? We cannot not respond. There is no neutral ground. When Christ comes into the world and into individual human lives, he calls for a response and a commitment.
Secondly, the gospel is not only for us but especially for those who have not heard it. We need to remember that we are the gentiles. As Paul says, we have been grafted into the chosen people by God’s mercy and goodness and for no other reason. At St. Peter’s, we have a vision that says, in part, “We believe that God is calling us to develop an intentional ministry that implements a sense of welcome and hospitality expressed throughout Scripture and promotes a culture of inclusion and belonging.” This is about hospitality and it is also about evangelism – sharing the good news of God’s love just because it is good news! Those “people out there” are in most respects just like us. They need to know, as we need to know, that the riches of Christ are for them too, and if we don’t tell them, who will?
Finally, we need to read the Christmas stories at both a personal and a political level. At the personal level, the Christmas stories speak to our deepest longings – for light in the darkness, for fulfilment of our deepest hopes, for peace and joy. But the stories also need to be read through a political lens. Advent and Christmas are not only about God’s relationship with individuals. They are about a new world, the world that God is making. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book The First Christmas, describe the nature of empire. They do not mean a specific geographical or historical empire, but rather how empires in every time and place use their military, political, and economic power to shape the world as they see fit. In this understanding, the Christmas stories are profoundly anti-imperial and subversive. The Christmas stories tell us that Jesus is the Son of God, and the emperor is not. Jesus is the light of the world; the emperor is not. Jesus is Lord and the Saviour of his people; the emperor is not. Empires subdue and rule the world through intimidation, fear, violence, and chaos, and they call it peace. The Christmas story says that true peace comes, not through military victory, but through non-violent justice.
Who are we in Matthew’s story? Are we among those who search, follow, and worship? Do we follow the light and refuse to comply with empire’s plot to destroy it? Or are we like Herod, filled with fear and willing to use whatever means are necessary to hang on to power? Who is the light of our world? To whom to we give our allegiance?
This Epiphany, may we be among those who seek, who follow, who worship, and who rejoice in God’s light.