Epiphany in a Dark Time

Mem Church Poster for FX ClooneyWhen I was a child, our family would always set up a Christmas scene under the tree: the angels and shepherds, Joseph and Mary, and there in the manger in the stable, the newborn Jesus. Our set included the wise men too, but we put them somewhere else in the house, and slowly they approached the crib, finally taking their place in the scene today, January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Though drawn from two accounts in two Gospels, all the pieces fit together in great harmony.

This comes to mind today as we celebrate Epiphany, in the Western churches the celebration of the manifestation of the newborn Christ to the whole world, and thus a fitting completion to the feast of Christmas: Christ a light unto the whole world. As today’s first reading puts it in a passage that Matthew surely had in mind, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… the wealth of the nations shall come to you… a multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (60.3, 5-6)

It does all fit together nicely — until we take a closer look, and read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus apart from Luke’s. Once we do this, we will be surprised yet again to recall how much starker and even dark Matthew’s telling of the story is. Matthew is a minimalist, attentive to prophecies, but sparing in the setting of a scene we might visualize. At the end of Chapter One, Joseph had been told in a dream to take Mary as his wife, though he is not the father of her child. He does. And as for birth, Matthew says merely, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (1.24-25) No fanfare, no visualization of a first Christmas.

Chapter Two then strikes a still darker note: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea” (2.1): that is, when the ruler was Herod, a major figure in Jewish history, a long-time ruler but also merely a minion of Roman power. The history of Herod the Great is complicated (you can look it up) but in this sole appearance in Matthew, he is portrayed as aiming to hold onto power by any means necessary. He is a powerful and he is insecure and therefore ruthless. He is ready, just a few verses later, to slaughter small children in order to snuff out even the possibility of a rival.

And then we have the Magi themselves — not “three kings,” nor innocuously “wise men,” but three religious figures, priests of a kind, apparently something like astrologers, readers of stars: as the OED puts it, a magus is “a member of an ancient Persian priestly caste which became influential in the development of Zoroastrianism. Hence: a person skilled in eastern magic and astrology; a magician or sorcerer.” For reasons unknown, these Magi have taken an interest in seeing the newborn king of the Jews and so have come a long way to find him — in what is therefore the first encounter of the new-born Jesus with non-Jews. In the beginning, pagan priests are the first to meet Jesus. There is not a word of criticism; Matthew seems utterly unconcerned about the religious identity of these anomalous, unexpected visitors.

The Magi have followed a star rising in the east, and their astral arts have taken them most of the way. But in the end, that doesn’t quite get them where they want to be. They are left on their own. They wander Jerusalem, asking about this new-born king. Their expert knowledge falls short, and so they need to talk to people they meet in the streets of the city.  

For his own reasons, the highly agitated Herod needs to learn where this child is. For it turns out that his learned religious advisors knew Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherdmy people Israel.’” But what they did not know is that those words might every come true, here and now. Herod lies to the Magi, concealing his fear and his hatred for a moment, so that he can make use of their convenient arrival.

As the Magi make the short journey to Bethlehem, their star suddenly reappears, and they find their way into Bethlehem, finally to the right place. Now this could be the happy ending to Matthew’s variant on Luke’s account. But as we know, the scene fragments and takes a tragic turn. Warned by an angel, the Magi leave by another way; advised by an angel, Joseph escapes with Mary and the child, refugees to far-off Egypt; and Herod’s soldiers come in, murdering every young boy they can find.

Now all of this is rather depressing, hardly in the Christmas spirit as we have come to expect it. But perhaps this is Matthew’s point: the baby born in Bethlehem is indeed the Messiah, indeed born in fulfillment of the prophecies, indeed a light in the darkness — but he was not born only into nights that are serene and holy and lit up by stars and angelic hosts, to be watched over by gentle shepherds. Even when things are evil and dark and Herod looms nearby, and even when those at the center of the scene are aliens, pagan astrologers from the east, it is still a fact that the Christ has been born, he is here, now.

And so we can take a closer look at the central scene, all the more impressive under the circumstances: “When they saw that the star had stopped, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they fell prostrate before him and paid him homage.” (2.10) Their joy abounds, for despite everything their star has guided them. When they see the child and his mother, they know they have found what by deep instinct they had been seeking all along. Perhaps too late they realize that their splendid gifts were meant for some palace in Jerusalem, not an ordinary house in Bethlehem; but gold, frankincense and myrrh are the gifts they have, and such is what they give.

For a fleeting moment, everything came together: they see, they rejoice with great joy, they worship with full hearts, they give what they have. Fleeting, but enough: not a remedy for the sorrows to follow, but a gift, a light that darkness does not overcome. The Magi even find a way home: “They left for their own country by different path.” (2.12) Matthew asks nothing more of them. There is no indication they convert to Judaism or become proto-Christians; no indication that they abandon their astrological arts. They go home, for the rest of their lives people who have seen Jesus. It is enough.

At Epiphany in 2019, it seems that we live more in Matthew’s dark world, at a distance from Luke’s peaceful scene, more in the time of raw power and heartless violence, negotiating a great mix of religious paths and of old and new divine arts, jostled by neighbors finding their way as they can, when they can.

But how are we to be religiously and spiritually, in so dark a time? Perhaps we are more likely to be entirely consumed by the woeful state of our world, appalled at its violence. We may be skeptical about the wisdom and utility of learned scholars and honored sages who know the holy books but never expect them to come true here and now. We may roll our eyes at idealistic Magi who take stars seriously and go on long journeys that make no sense. We may simply be greatly stressed by the push and pull of daily existence. And deep down, Christian or not, we may be skeptical about the possibility of a Christ born in our midst here and now. Sure, a Messiah: but not in my lifetime.

But Matthew is telling us that now is the time not to lose heart. Even now, we can still search, lose and find our way, pass through the harrowing dark, arriving by one path and leaving by another. We can still rejoice with exceeding great joy when our star leads us to the goal we have been seeking all along. We can still see the Lord and his mother too, worshippers at his feet. We can give the gifts we have, fitting or not. And marvel to behold, like the Magi, we still find our way home, ourselves still, now blessed with a new light around us, within us. We have seen Jesus. It is still enough. 

 (This is a written version of a sermon given in Harvard’s Memorial Church on Sunday, January 6, 2019. It was given first, written later, so there will be differences between this text and the version heard on Sunday. It is also posted at the Harvard Divinity Website.)