January 4, 2015, Epiphany – Joyfully Ever After
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We live in a culture that is all about being happy. The pursuit of happiness is right there in our declaration of independence, one of our ‘inalienable rights’ as human beings. But as modern Americans we have made the pursuit of happiness our national pastime, at least our own personal happiness. A relationship is good, not when both partners keep their commitments to one another; it’s good when it makes me happy. A college class is good, not if I learned a lot, but if I’m happy with my grades. And my job is good, not if I am doing something worthwhile, but if I am happy with my salary and my co-workers and my benefits. And when all those things fail to make me happy, as they all do eventually, we have a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry so we can plug ourselves in and get happy at the end of our unhappy day.
People spend an awful lot of time and energy trying to hold onto happiness, which is a shallow and fleeting thing. No matter how hard people work at being happy, it is just as slippery as a bar of soap in the shower, because the moment we think we’ve attained happiness, we are sure to see someone who looks happier than we are, and suddenly we aren’t satisfied anymore. It turns out the pursuit of happiness, as the world has re-defined it, is a neat little trick to keep us chasing a phantom until we have lost our way entirely.
And the reason the trick works so well in our world is that people are starved for anything that will give them a sense of being significant and cared for, even for a little while, like insecure children who demand gifts and favors and privileges, but who really, deep down, are just crying out to know that they are loved. As long as people can keep themselves feeling happy they reassure themselves that they are OK, and those lurking fears of worthlessness or abandonment or meaninglessness can be kept at bay. But the thing our hearts are really longing for all the while is something much deeper and more lasting that mere happiness. The moments of our lives that we can hold onto, the moments that are truly worth holding onto, are not moments of mere happiness. They are moments of joy, which is not at all the same thing.
The joys of our lives are those times when we receive good, and in receiving it we catch a glimpse of the One who is the source of all good. Joy is not just a matter of things working out well; in fact, we may know joy even at times when things don’t work out well at all. Joy come to us when we know that whatever happens we are in the hands of the One who loves us. Joy comes to us when we see through the beauty of creation to the infinitely greater beauty of the Creator. And when joy happens our life is changed forever.
It is such a personal, unique thing, I think. For me, when I think of joy, it seems to most often involve my family: the love I share with Carroll, and the birth of our children; their baptisms and weddings. But it’s not only the ‘happy’ things, I have found joy in some things that were very hard – like the last days I was able to spend with my mother and my father before they died, or times when I have had to confess something I was terribly ashamed of. And some things that were too solemn to feel happy at the time were the most joyful of all, like the day of my ordination to the priesthood, or celebrating Eucharist on my first Christmas Eve at St. Philip’s – terrifying but so very joyful. In all those different moments, and many others, I recognized the love of the Giver in the goodness of his many gifts, gifts of life or comfort or forgiveness or empowering. What makes those times important to us is that we draw near to God in those times. That is joy.
Our joys are sometimes things we most love to share with others, and sometimes things that just rest in a deep, quiet place in our hearts. The moment itself ends, the years pass by, but the joy remains. Happiness comes and goes, because it’s all about how we feel and that is gone as soon as it came. But joy remains a part of us, because joy is about knowing, not feeling.
And the reason I am going on about joy, is because the story of the wise men is a story about joy. It is kind of a mysterious story, and I think it often gets shortchanged in the Christmas season because the angels and the shepherds hog the spotlight a little bit. We arrange the creche, with Joseph and Mary and the little child Jesus, and we surround them with sheep and oxen and donkeys, a few shepherds and an angel or two. And then, as sort of an afterthought, we put the three kings and their camels a little way off, in a sort of permanent mini-caravan, as if they were doomed to journey forever and never quite reach the holy child whose gifts they carried such a long, long way.
But the truth is they did come to the end of their journey, though it was a very long one. The wise men probably traveled for about six months to reach Jerusalem, following some astronomical event that they understood, as learned scholars of such things, to have great significance not only for the little nation of Israel, but for the whole world. Otherwise they would never have made such a long trip just to find a little Jewish peasant boy. If they started out in late May of the year 7 b.c., as it has been suggested by some, (though we don’t really know for sure) they would have found themselves standing in front of the little house in Bethlehem sometime in early December.
No matter what month they arrived, we know that the wise men arrived in Bethlehem much later than the shepherds and angels: was sometime after Mary and Joseph had found a house to live in, but before they had to leave Bethlehem and flee to Egypt to escape from King Herod. We know that because Matthew tells us that they came to a house, and they went in, and found the child with Mary his mother. And then Matthew tells us that they fell flat on their faces – they didn’t just make a polite little bow, or genuflect, like the porcelain figures of wise men, they fell prostrate, heedless of their own dignity, at the feet of the young mother, sitting there in her simple cottage with the little child on her lap.
And Matthew tells us something else. When the wise men had followed the star until it stopped right over the place where the holy family was living, and when they knew that they had arrived at last, Matthew says ‘they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy’. It is such a wonderful phrase, as if Matthew couldn’t find enough superlatives to express the joy of those men when they knew at last they had come to the end of all their searching, and they had found the one they sought.
Rejoicing with the greatest joy, they fell on their faces before the little peasant boy and his mom, and they opened up their sacks like the most exotic Santa Clauses and they offered gifts that were absolutely ridiculous for a carpenter’s son, but perfectly appropriate for a child who would grow up to be king: gold and frankincense and myrrh. And then, Matthew tells us, they went home, avoiding Herod and his spider’s web of malice and control-freakery. They just went right back home. That visit to Bethlehem was just a brief moment of their lives, maybe a few days, maybe just a day or maybe just an hour. But they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy, because they knew in that moment that something so wonderful had come into the world that the world was changed forever. They saw the gift, and they recognized the Giver. And they rejoiced.
It might have looked to anyone else like a shabby little cottage housing a poor woodworker and his young wife and baby, but the wise men knew that the coming of the child was an event of greater significance than any astronomical or political or geophysical event that had ever happened or ever would happen in the history of our world. It was a moment of joy. It was THE moment of joy. It was the moment in the history of the world when the Father’s love was made visible to his children, and the world would never be the same. So the wise men went back home, but their great joy is handed on to us, and to all people, in the telling of their story.
Those men, as wise as they were, had no idea how the little peasant child’s life would play out. They knew in their great wisdom that he was born to be king, but they had no way of knowing what sort of a king he would turn out to be – that he would never be a king like Herod in his palace with his silks and satins, and swords and bloodshed. How could they possibly have known that the child they came to worship with such great joy had been born to be a homeless king, and a servant king – to be a king on a cross. The story of the child-king was not going to be a story the world would ever have written, not a story of smooth sailing and pleasant words and nice feelings, not a happily-ever-after story, but much, much better – a joyfully-ever-after story. It is the story that tells us we are not orphans after all, not left to our own devices to make our way as best we can. It is the story that we are loved.
We have no way of knowing whether those wise men ever heard in their lifetimes what became of the child, or whether they even understood fully what it was that made their hearts leap for joy on the day they fell at the feet of the mother and her child, but it is certain that they knew that the greatest of all Goods had come into our world. James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” The wise men followed the message of the star all the way to the little house in Bethlehem, and there they found the child, Jesus, resting in the lap of the young mother Mary. And in that moment they knew that God himself had drawn near to his people, so near that he had become one of us.
Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing!