Homily: By Another Way

     How well we know the story of Epiphany and the wise men. Yes, we know what’s coming, after the wise men make their way to Bethlehem, find the child, are overwhelmed with joy, offer their gifts fit for a real king and pay him homage, and then, after being warned in a dream, return home by another way.

   We’ve heard the story many times; we know what Herod will do with this knowledge. The story that tells us so graphically just what lives in the heart of evil men, what fear and insecurity, arrogance and a greed for power can do.

   When Matthew told the story of the wise men, he placed it in this big picture so that whoever heard the story were able to connect with the ancient story of God’s marvelous work The whole story held together for them, it made sense, and they could see themselves within it.

   Don’t we want to find ourselves in the story, too, to hear what happened so long ago, and to connect our own lives with it? We want to feel ourselves, strangers from a distant land and far-off time, kneeling with the wise ones from the East, in awe and joy for the gift of the Divine Child before us.

   And we want to know how God is still at work in this world we live in now, how God is still speaking to us, today, as God spoke through the prophets, through dreams and angels and a bright, shining star, so long ago.

   It’s deeply moving to hear of three foreigners traveling a long, hard way because they had an inkling — just an inkling — of something very important unfolding in a distant land. Something inside them must have been restless, or upset, or hungry for understanding.

   With all their wisdom and learning, there was something they still needed to find or learn on their long trek. And what did they find but a poor family and a helpless child, in modest surroundings, lying in a teenage mother’s arms. To those in any way perceptive, this scene was not a wise man’s formula for future success. Yet, by grace, the magi had the faith to experience unbridled joy.

                 The rest of the story

   These strangers from the East to our evangelist Matthew represent long-standing resistance to Western imperialism, very high ranking political-religious advisers to the rulers of the Median and Persian empires, which were roughly where the modern countries of Iran and Iraq are today.

Yes; ironically, today’s biblical story leads us to ponder the meaning of visitors from the very places we fear most right now. Imagine a visit to our local church by religious or political leaders from that same part of the world, from Iran or Afghanistan. But Matthew wants his audience to hear about the Good News of God’s universal and all-encompassing grace, even if they’re offended that such ‘objectionable’ people are included in the story.

   What Matthew may be trying to convey, however, is a sneak preview: the Christ child who attracted these odd Magi to his cradle will later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers. Matthew’s is a story, then, of God at work in the world–the good news, the gospel–these foreigners, these Gentiles, represent us, too, in a sense. Twenty-six chapters later, Matthew would tell of Jesus commanding his disciples to “Go, make disciples of all nations.” We are in this big picture, too, this tradition of hope rooted in the prophets and embodied by Jesus Christ himself.

                  A story of God’s compassion

   This beautiful story of seekers from the East so long ago, bearing extravagant gifts for a king and being overwhelmed with joy, is not just a nice little story that decorates our Nativity sets and Christmas cards. This little story is part of a larger story that holds within it the suffering of the world, whether in sudden and spectacular devastation by earthquake, hurricane, or tidal wave, in the slow motion violence of poverty, in the anguish of those engulfed by war and the quiet agony of those who live and breathe the poisoned air of hatred and neglect caused by human sinfulness, in the pain of illness and injury, and in the private, personal sorrows of the human heart.

Christ, the savior of humankind, is the great light that shines upon all peoples. Why were the very first to be called to worship the holy infant were the wise men from the East? Was it that the East stood in greater need of Christ because of the endless river of tears which is its history? I do not know.

   What I do know is that the East, in its recent history, has been hammered on the anvil of extreme adversity, here forged and tempered for over a hundred years, in Syria, in Maynmar/Burma, in East Timor and Nepal. Precisely because of this, should not the East be able to offer up an even more refined gold when it worships Christ? Out of this pain and agony, should not the East be ready to bring forth even more fragrant frankincense and myrrh, the very symbols of suffering and pain?

   The Magi follow a star, guided by God, looking to nature for signs and guidance. God would also provide direction through a dream. The world is full of ‘stars in the East’–events in nature, personal experience, and history that point toward the mystery of God.

   So, what do we hear in this story? We hear that God has sent a gentle shepherd who will nevertheless upset the powers-that-have-been. We hear that the smallest things, like a newborn baby, can terrify the mighty, and bring them down. We learn that God’s reach of grace goes far beyond every obstacle within or without, and pushes us beyond them, too. We learn that a great light has dawned that draws all people and calls us to live our lives illuminated by its truth. That’s what the Epiphany season is about.

   If the light has come, those who have been seated in darkness awaiting its arrival are exhorted to greet that light and the new age that it inaugurates by shining in order to reflect its glory in all the activities and relationships of everyday life…to be the light of the world. In W.H. Auden’s poem, “For the Time Being”, he says: “To discover how to be human now / is the reason we follow this star.”

   And nothing will ever be the same. You don’t take the old road any longer. You unfold a new map, and discover another way home.

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