January 5, 2014, Epiphany – Bringing It All Back
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Yesterday Irene was all ready to generously give of her time and energy by taking down the big tree in the Parish Hall. I asked her to wait, though, because the Christmas season isn’t over until the Feast of the Epiphany, which technically means not until tomorrow. Theoretically and theologically, I like the idea of celebrating Christmas all through its twelve days. The Incarnation, the eternal God being born into the world as a human child, is worth celebrating big time, and I think it is right to celebrate thoroughly, and not just buy into the whole big blowout of Christmas Day in America: with the guests and the presents and the ham and the cookies and the Christmas movies and the carols and then just pitch the tree out onto the curb on December 26th. But if I am honest – and I had better be honest – I will admit that I do generally come to a point sometime before the twelve days are over when I am ready to get back to life as usual. I have to admit that this year, once again, I have arrived at the point where I’m ready to pack away the decorations and tidy up the house and get back to early bedtimes and regular schedules and plain food.
What it is, is I am ready to go home again, because holidays and celebrations take us away from all that makes up our home, which is not just the rooms and the furniture, but the whole experience of how we spend our time and who we spend our time with. And celebrations, as wonderful as they can be, take us out of our comfortable “home life” and in doing that they tire us out in the same way as going to visit friends or relatives and sleeping in a strange bed and eating unfamiliar foods and doing unfamiliar things at unfamiliar times. No matter how much we enjoy it; no matter how much we treasure that time, there comes a moment when we just need to be home again, because home is where we belong.
Even the magi, those mysterious visitors from the East, when they had traveled miles and miles to pay tribute to the new born King, even they, after they had bowed down to the infant King and his mother, and given their kingly gifts, even they went back home again. And if you think about it, that seems like a strange thing to do. The likeliest scenario of the travels of the Magi says that in late May of the year 7 b.c. the magi, who were men of a priestly class who were learned in things astronomical, noticed a conjunction that is known to have occurred with the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. In the ancient world, the movement of the stars and planets was thought to have great significance – and we know from Scripture that God uses the signs in the heavens for a lot more than modern man would like to admit – and so they set out, believing that a new King had been born in the little land of Israel, and that his birth would somehow impact the whole world – and they were right about that, too. They probably traveled for about six months – travel was a slow and uncomfortable business back then – and we know that the conjunction happened again during the time they might have been journeying, and then once more, to their great joy and comfort, in early December, just as they would have left the palace of King Herod, where it led them to the little town of Bethlehem.
Scholars can only make their best guess about the star and the date of the journey, and none of the gospel writers says anything about there being three men, or what there names were, or even that they were kings. Those details we don’t really know. But we do know what they did when they arrived, because Matthew tells us. When they found the house where Mary and Joseph and Jesus were living, they fell on their faces before the tiny child and his mother Mary and they worshiped him as a true king, and they gave him the rich gifts they had brought with them, gold and frankincense and myrrh, gifts fit for a king. It must have been a small, simple house because Mary and Joseph were nothing more than peasants, working-class people in temporary housing with a brand new baby.
But from what Matthew tells us, despite their poverty and simplicity the magi didn’t doubt for an instant that the tiny little boy they found in the lap of the young peasant woman was indeed the King whose coming they had seen in the stars. So they fell at the feet of the infant Jesus and offered the richest gifts they could offer. And then they went back home.
And doesn’t it seem strange to you that they didn’t stay in Bethlehem to be near this child whose kingship they were absolutely convinced of? When the star had brought them out of their country and across the wilderness to find this child, why then did they turn around and go back home? That only makes sense if the prophecies about the Christ were absolutely true. The magi followed the star for all those months to offer their allegiance to the one they believed God was sending to rule the whole world – not just a new king to rule the Jews – because why would they care about that? – and not just in hopes that he would overthrow Herod or the Roman Empire – but to bring God’s reign to every nation on the face of the earth, including their own nation, including their own home. The appearing of the star wasn’t heralding some kind of local disruption of the powers that be. It was the shining of God’s grace on the whole earth, prepared by God from before all time but breaking in to our time and space in that one particular village at the one specific point in history, as Micah had prophesied 700 years earlier:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days…And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.
The magi recognized the shining of God’s face in the heavens; they knew what it meant, so that when they had come to celebrate the coming of the Christ in Bethlehem, when they had worshipped Jesus and rejoiced and offered the best gifts they could offer, they went home, because they knew that now he would be great to the ends of the earth, and they knew that when they went back home he would be their peace forever. They didn’t pack up and go back to life as usual, because they knew that nothing would ever be the same again. They went home, but they went home changed forever by what they had seen and heard and touched, because they had seen Emmanuel, God who is with us, not just one of the many little local gods of the nations, but the one true God of all the nations whose light had come into the world to dispel all darkness.
Most of us have celebrated Christmas scores of times. How many times have we decorated our trees and sung the old carols and wrapped the presents and baked the cookies and mailed out the cards? How many times have we set up our little stables with their shepherds and camels and wise men made of porcelain or plaster or wood? But still, after all those years our hearts are touched when we hear the story of the Nativity – not because it is a beautiful story, but because it is true, and what it means is that our world is changed forever. Even with the dullness of repetition and the crassness of commercialism and the press of obligations the world can’t quite drown out the clear joy of the angels’ message, as the carol says:
still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world…
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.
So the question for us is, what happens when we go back home, back to life as usual after the holidays? What is left to us when the tree is out on the curb and the sheep and camels are wrapped in tissue and laid in their boxes and all the twinkling lights on our neighbors’ porches have gone dark?
Whether we come home at the end of the holidays feeling relief or weariness or sadness or nothing at all, the testimony of the magi is that we go home to a world that is continually under the gracious and loving care of the Father. The truth is that when Mary’s child was born in Bethlehem, it was the unwrapping of God’s self-giving that had been planned from before the dawn of time, and our world was changed forever. We don’t always see it. Once the wrappings have been recycled and the decorations stowed away in the attic and the gifts put away in drawers and on shelves, and all the visitors have gone, our home looks exactly like it did before, as if Christmas had never even happened. And sometimes it might seem as if the futility of the world had the last word after all. But the wise men from the East witness to us that the little child born in Bethlehem is the Shepherd over every nation and the Lord of every heart. We believe that the child in Bethlehem is the God/Man who gave his life for us, and who gives himself to his people in the Eucharist.
Home isn’t just the physical space, with walls and doors and furniture. Home is what we do each day, and the people we live among. Home is how we live our everyday lives, and the choices we make. Home is who we really are. And after the shining light of the Epiphany has drawn us to the foreign land of the child’s birth, it draws us back home, because home is where we seek God, and home is where we find him. He is our peace just as we are, not dressed up and decorated, not the Martha Stewart version of us, and home is where he can be found – right where we live – because Jesus is truly and forever Emmanuel, God with us.