Tag Archives: Herod

Going another Way

In the west, today is the Day of the Epiphany. An epiphany is an unexpected experience of an enlightenment, a new and deeper understanding of life. When the ‘wise men’ or Magi visited Jesus, they had an epiphany, and became even wiser. 

In the eastern churches, Christmas begins today at sunset. Happy Christmas to brothers and sisters who are about to celebrate this sacred Day!

 

Reading
Matthew 2.1–12

It might have been just someone else’s story;
Some chosen people get a special king,
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In palaces, found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice. — Malcolm Guite, ‘The Magi’ in Sounding the Seasons: Seventy sonnets for the Christian Year

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We call them ‘wise men’, but my guess is that most of us would discount their wisdom today. It was the so-called wisdom of astrology, seeing signs in the heavens, trying to predict the future from the wanderings of planets through the constellations. Yet this time, it seemed to have worked.

We call them wise men, but the name the scriptures give them is ‘magi’. Magi is like our words magic and magician. I’m going to call them magi.

The magi weren’t what we think of as magicians; they were part of a Persian priestly group whose astrological wisdom brought them mostly respect, but also some mockery. 

We know the story, how they saw a star that they interpreted to foretell the birth of a new king in Judea. So they followed this strange new star to—well, not to little Bethlehem. Not at first. When they arrived in Judaea, they went to the logical place, the place you’d expect a new king to be born. They went to the big smoke. Jerusalem. 

And in the big smoke, they saw the big man himself. Herod.

Who else would know about a new king, right?

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Were they so wise?

Reading
Matthew 2.1–12

 

What are you doing, O Magi? Do you adore a little Babe, in a wretched hovel, wrapped in miserable rags? Can this Child be truly God? … Are you become foolish, O Wise Men … Yes, these Wise Men have become fools that they may be wise. — St Bernard of Clairvaux, from a sermon on the Epiphany

Today, we come to the bit about the three wise men.

Of course, that’s an unbiblical thing to say. We always think ‘three wise men’ because three gifts are mentioned.

I have another reason for not wanting to speak of three wise men.

I’m not sure they were all that wise.

Matthew doesn’t say they were wise, did you know that? Matthew’s word for them was magoi. That’s our word magi. So let’s call them magi.

We know that word magi, it’s where we get our words magic and magician from.

Nonbiblical sources reveal that magi were associated primarily with Persia, where they were members of a priestly class learned in astrology and other magical arts, including divination, dream interpretation, and the concoction of potions.

Magi were often lampooned as deceivers or fools, so Matthew may well mean to show God’s gracious revelation to Gentile ‘experts’ in nonsense.

So the magi follow a star which they believe heralds the birth of a new king. Where do you go to find a king? To the palace.

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First Sunday of Christmas (Year A, 26 December 2010)

We are Christmas people

Readings
Isaiah 63.7-9
Hebrews 2.10-18
Matthew 2.13-23

Christmas is intended to be a jolly time, whether you’re into Santa or the Nativity of Jesus. On the one hand, it’s about presents, food and drink; on the other, it’s about the cutest baby you ever saw. But that isn’t the whole Christmas story by any stretch of the imagination. And Christmas isn’t necessarily a wonderful time. It can be a time that brings losses and griefs to the front of our minds. It can be a very sad time, a time for tears.

Today, we heard the part of the Christmas story that has to do with loss and grief. The bit you don’t hear about while you’re dashing through the snow or sitting on Santa’s knee.

Of course, it’s the part where, in Matthew’s Gospel, Bethlehem loses all its boy children under two years of age. It’s called ‘The Slaughter of the Innocents’.

Listen to this:

The very story of Christmas is dark. Mary and Joseph, already fraught in a situation full of tension, are forced to participate in a census carried on by oppressive occupiers known for cruelty, corruption, and bullying. The town is so crowded, there’s no comfortable place for the pregnant girl about to deliver her child, so the couple settle for an animal’s hut or cave, neither clean nor pretty. Meanwhile, the local king, a paranoid maniac, orders the massacre of all the male children under the age of two in a savage act of terror. The mother and father escape, carrying with their child the guilt of survival.

Wherever you look in the Christmas story, there is discord. Mary was unexpectedly pregnant in an unforeseen way, which many would not understand; the Romans were brutally occupying the land; Herod was so murderously vindictive it was said his pigs’ lives were safer than his sons (a great pun in Greek; his huoi were safer than his huioi).

The women of Bethlehem were left grieving, while Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to Egypt. Does God care about kids? We know the answer is ‘yes’—but it’s not obvious from the story of the ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’. After all, only one is saved—God’s Son. The rest seem to be expendable.

Jesus was born in a difficult and dangerous time. We shouldn’t think that Jesus was born into a relatively peaceful place like Centenary. Jesus was a marginal person, a ‘wanted’ baby dead or alive, preferably dead.

Christmas isn’t much better for many children today; and when we make Christmas all sentimental, we miss this reality. For most children in today’s world, life is difficult and may be dangerous: they may not have enough to eat; they may have illnesses like malaria or typhoid fever; they don’t have an education. Their parents may have died of AIDS. They may live in places where life is insecure because of civil unrest or war.

And it’s the same on Christmas Day.

Some children are conscripted to fight. Others are the victims of sex trafficking. Some work long hours in sweatshops to provide cheap clothing for Australians. Others are the children of asylum seekers who spend long stretches of their childhood in detention camps.

And it’s the same on Christmas Day.

God does care. The clue is in the birth of Jesus. Hundreds of years before, this was written in the Book of Isaiah:

God said, ‘Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely’;
and he became their saviour
in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but God’s presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them
all the days of old.

For the people who first heard this prophetic word, God was present in the way they were brought from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem.

Jesus fulfilled this prophetic word. He fulfilled it because in him the eternal God became human. It really was ‘God’s presence that saved them’. It was Emmanuel, God-with-us, who shared our lot. As our Hebrews reading says,

Jesus had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect… Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

God does care. God became like us in every respect. We proclaim this astounding truth: God eternally shares our humanity—and the humanity of every suffering child.

God is not far away from any suffering child. God is close to all who suffer, because they are God’s beloved children. And Jesus’ sisters and brothers.

What’s this Christmas been like for you? Not everyone has had a wonderful time. For many in our world, it’s just another day. Whether our own Christmas was happy or not, we are Christmas people—people of hope, and joy, and peace, and compassion.

It was no messenger or angel
but God’s presence that saved them…

We are Christmas people: God’s presence is with us. It’s only when we go through life with our eyes closed that we fail to see what God is doing.

God is working in the mess of life to bring salvation. It may not be at the time of our choosing, but the timing is important: God is forming us as his children, and that takes time.

Children of God look out for one another. They help where another is suffering, whoever that child may be; they try to relieve suffering; they address government policies that cause suffering. They work with God to bring healing in the mess of life, wherever there is hardship.

There are many ways we can help—Operation Christmas Child; the Christmas Bowl; Kids Hope; Maiti Nepal; refugee resettlement projects. The list goes on; the mess goes on; God’s saving work goes on. And never ends.

It was no messenger or angel
but God’s presence that saved them…

Thank God for sending his Son Jesus, and for pouring the Holy Spirit out. Thank God for opened eyes, and ask that they be opened wider in 2011. Thank God for the call to be Christmas people, people of justice and peace, and children of God!

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