The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon,
The Epiphany of the Lord
To the exemplary memory of Otis Charles, a bishop uncomfortable with lies.
In the prologue of John, proclaimed this Christmas season (and possibly this Sunday), we heard how the Word of God (i.e. the Torah!) has become flesh and blood. So for Christians, at least, "spirituality" must be embodied, taking place in the messy theater of history.
This year, the lectionary has us proclaiming the Flight into Egypt first, and then, on Epiphany (or the Sunday immediately before), the story of the Three Magi. The two pericopes, however, are best understood in light of each other.
Somewhere along Christian history, the magi in the first Gospel became Kings, even though Matthew says nothing about that. He calls them magi in Greek, that is, "wise men" or "astrologers" who "saw his star in the East." They came looking for a King just born – a King of the Jews.
We do not usually think of our political leaders as having their own star, but in antiquity this notion was commonplace. In Colossians, for example, the "principalities and powers" that Christ dragged behind him in his triumphal procession were both the political powers that be and the cosmic forces that guided and protected them.
The newborn King of the Jews also has his own star. This new King is extremely frightening to King Herod, who was a yes-man for the Roman invaders, and must have lived in mortal fear that the Jewish rebels might crown their own King and trigger a civil war – not a pretty thing in the eyes of Rome, his master and employer.
But a baby King? Come oooon! From a Kingdom belonging specially to children, the poor, the nobodies? How exactly would that be a threat to the powers that be?
Perhaps Herod knew, in his heart of hearts, that his power was illegitimate? Or did he unconsciously know that he was betraying his own people? Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, of course. But even more uneasily if that crown is heavy with guilt. And there is no more dangerous power than power suffused with guilt.
People in the grips of guilt-ridden power live in extreme fear and shame. Oh, they may convince themselves that their secrets are necessary, or that they have a right to their power, or that it is God's will that they rule. Washington and Ottawa have, over the years, provided many examples. We only find out about them after their house of cards comes crashing down from its own weight of lies. These "kings" know this well, and so live in mortal fear of The Day.
Matthew paints Herod as a villain, and the historical record of his reign bears that out. Yet in Matthew's narrative, no less than in Roman history, Herod is just a pawn. He is there so the Holy Family has to go into exile so that God can call them back out of Egypt and take them home, like the people of Israel. Baby Jesus is the embodiment of an oppressed people, literally rescued by God from exile and brought safely home. Undocumented immigrants have no problem making sense of this story.
Yet it is difficult to bring this pericope to our own day. For it to make sense, the hearer must belong to the dispossessed – the nobodies –undocumented persons, the sick, the abandoned, the poor. For those of us who are comfortable, the temptation is strong to allegorize the story into a description of interior subjective states, forgetting its real flesh and blood implications, both to the Herods of this world and to those they sell out and oppress.
But we should resist. Matthew knew nothing of interior "spiritual" subjective states separated from sociopolitical events. For him the restoration of Israel – united with all the nations – by Christ was a political and socioeconomic event, not a disembodied "spiritual" happening.
The reading from Jeremiah assigned for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas Day drives this home. The prophet does not use phrases as metaphors of spiritual states. He means them literally. There WILL be enough grain, wine and oil, and food and dancing and even fat for priests. The redemption of God's people will not be the payment of a bill to an accountant father, but their liberation from oppression and injustice by those whose power is illegitimate.
The Gospel turn on this of course is that in Jesus' case he is not just "the Jewish people," but a kid! (In Luke this kid actually teaches theologians at the Temple!) Matthew is telling us that the revolutionary power of the Good News to bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the poor is a different kind of power from the usual. It is the power of children and other people who were considered nobodies in Jesus’ time. For as Nelson Mandela learned and taught, we cannot fight the principalities and powers of this world that corrupt and kill God's creatures with their own methods. A different method is in order: the power of powerlessness – public, loud, truth-telling powerlessness. Powerlessness so sure of the righteousness of its cries for justice, that it can turn the cheek, suffer persecution, bear extended imprisonment and death itself, so strong is its determination to hope and work for a better world.
And a better Church.
Juan Oliver is a member of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Societas Liturgica, and The Council of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, as whose president he served from 1997 to 2001. He´s retired in Santa Fe, NM.
"The Magi" and "Flight into Egypt" by He Qi.
"The Magi" and "Flight into Egypt" by He Qi.