January 2, 2022, Treasure These Things in Your Own Heart, Matthew 2:1-12 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
I think most of us will have to remind ourselves this coming week, that it’s still Christmas; that we are still walking through the season of our Lord’s Nativity. Carroll and I have a few friends – good Episcopalians, of course – who staunchly observe the full season of Advent, right up to Christmas Eve, and then take all 12 days of Christmas – from December 25th to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th – in an extended, joyful celebration of Christmas. It sounds wonderful – theoretically – but every year, I always seem to get swept along on the world’s timetable, so that I’m looking at Christmas crafts and planning gifts in October, decorating the house in November, and by the time Christmas Day is over, I am more than ready to clear away the wrappings, sweep up the pine needles, clean the leftovers out of the fridge, and put the ornaments and candles and things back in the closet for next year. I hardly know what to do with the last 11 days of Christmas.
There is a much-used quote from William Wordsworth that goes: “The world is too much with us, late and soon. / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; – / Little we see in Nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” People seem to find a multitude of applications for this quote, in our soul-sucking, materialistic, commercialized, high-pressure world. Wordsworth was a Romantic poet in the time of the Industrial Revolution in England. He was lamenting the way mankind in his day was losing its reverence and awe for the beauty and mystery of nature. But as Christians, it can also speak to us, in the way we so often find ourselves drained and weary and numb at the end of this holy season. How many of us have really had an opportunity, this year, in the midst of all the holiday busy-ness, to stop and ponder in our hearts the wonderful strangeness of what we have proclaimed – the story of the birth of the Christ Child?
When we read the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ, one of the things that is so striking is seeing how differently people reacted. We know that the first reaction of the shepherds was terror, because the message was delivered to them by angelic beings, who are nothing like the chubby cherubs or girlish figures we see on Christmas cards or ornaments. Not at all! Angels are unearthly beings of great power. They’re scary, and we know that, because the first thing they always have to say to people is “Fear not!” But when the shepherds had gotten over their panic, and had heard the message the angels brought to them, their reaction was, “Let’s go and see this thing!” The shepherds were simple, uneducated men, even a little rough, maybe. We know they weren’t very high on the social ladder, not greatly respected. But the thing is, they were ready to hear the message of the angels.
Of all those who heard the message of the birth of Jesus, it was the shepherds, first and foremost, who embraced it without hesitation. It was the shepherds who dropped everything to go and see for themselves what God had told them. Later, when Jesus spoke to the crowds he would point this out – that it was the ones who were last in the eyes of the world: the poor and the lame, tax collectors and prostitutes – and shepherds, too – who were the first to come running when the kingdom of heaven opened its gates.
In the gospel reading today we see more very different reactions to the coming of the Christ Child. When the Magi arrived from the Far East and inquire at the palace about this new king they’d heard tell of, Herod’s reaction was fear. But not fearful awe like the shepherds had at the blazing glory of the angels, no. Herod was filled with terror because to him, the birth of a new king was like the first tremors of an earthquake under the foundations of a building. This news from these strange travelers threatened everything Herod had crafted for himself, by cunning and by political power – and by ruthless violence when necessary.
Herod had already murdered three of his own sons. When his brother-in-law roused his suspicions, he invited him to a swimming party and had him drowned. He ordered the killing of his favorite wife’s grandfather and then, when he suspected she had betrayed him, he killed her as well. At the end of his own life, Herod had his sister assemble all the leading men of the nation in a large arena, and he ordered that they all be killed at the moment of his death. He did that to make sure there would be no one celebrating at his death. It comes as no surprise at all that Herod’s reaction to what the Magi told him was to have his soldiers slaughter every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two. Herod was so consumed with fear of losing what he had built for himself, that he could only hear the news of the birth of the Christ Child as the direst threat.
And of course, the people of Jerusalem, who lived in the shadow of Herod’s cruelty reacted in fear as well. “When Herod heard this,” Matthew tells us, “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” They knew that Herod’s fear could only mean suffering for them as well. It’s one of the hardest parts of the Christmas story to understand, I think, that the Son of God was born into a world where such horrors took place. It’s especially hard for us to hear, because we know that there are still innocent victims who suffer every day at the hands of cruel and powerful people. But that’s part of this story, too.
And then we see the reaction of the Magi, those mysterious travelers from the Far East. The Christmas carol calls them the Three Kings, but the Bible doesn’t tells that there were three of them, and it doesn’t say that they were kings. They were men who studied the stars, astrologers, but not the goofy kind of astrologers we’re familiar with. And they had also, by the providence of God, studied the writings of the Hebrew prophets. So when they observed what was happening in the heavens, they understood somehow that it was a sign that these prophecies were being fulfilled. These men were seekers after truth, and their reaction to the Christ Child was sheer joy. Matthew tells us: when they had followed the star to the place where Jesus was living with his mother they were overwhelmed with joy. They knelt down in front of Jesus, and they opened their treasure chests and brought out rich gifts, fit for a king, because in their wisdom they knew that this peasant child was born to be king, not only of Herod’s little part of the world, but of all peoples, from East to West. And they went home, rejoicing in that knowledge.
The gospels also tell us the reaction of another person, very, very closely connected with the story. The closest, in fact. There is no one whose life was more greatly changed by the birth of the Son of God than Mary, his mother. We know that she heard the announcement of the angel with obedience and humility, and with great courage. And we know that she was filled with the Holy Spirit when she went to the home of her cousin Elizabeth, and that she prophesied about the meaning of her child’s birth into the world. Mary wasn’t just a helpless vessel. She was an active participant in the coming of God into the world. One of the names given to Mary is the Theotokos, the God-bearer. And that doesn’t only mean that Jesus grew in her womb like a plant growing in a flower pot. It means that she labored to bring him forth into the world, and she nursed him at her breast. She taught him the names of animals and birds and flowers. She loved him and watched over him as he grew up.
So we might be especially interested to know what Mary’s reaction was to the great event of Jesus’s birth. Luke tells us how the excited shepherds came to see Mary’s baby, all full of the glory and wonder of the angelic singing. And when they had gone off into town to tell everyone that would listen to them, Mary was quiet. “She treasured up all these things,” Luke says, “pondering them in her heart.” And not for the last time. We read about the time Jesus got left behind when he was twelve years old, and how Mary and Joseph searched for days in a panic and finally found him, in deep conversation with the priests and scribes in the Temple. That time, too, Luke tells us, Mary treasured all these things in her heart.
And in the quiet of these days after all the Christmas busy-ness and festivities, I invite you to follow Mary’s example. Ponder in your hearts all the words we’ve been reading and all the songs we’ve been singing. Ponder this Christmas story that is so familiar to you, and yet such a mystery:
the poverty, and the faith, of Mary and Joseph,
the painful reality of childbirth,
the humility of the Holy Child lying in an animal’s feed trough,
the glory of angels and stars and treasure chests
the jubilation of Shepherds and the adoration of Wise Men
and the rage and malice of worldly powers.
Today, and in the days to come, treasure up the story of Christ’s birth in your own heart. And ponder what it means that God himself has come to be born in our world.