HolyCross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
Epiphany C – Sunday, January 6, 2013
|The three sages arrive at the house of the widow and her crippled son|
from Gian Carlo Menotti's opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors"
staged at Intimate Opera of Pasadena
As is our monastery custom, the kings have taken their place along side shepherds and various cattle looking at the holy family at the creche. And we can feel a sense of vague Episcopalian superiority because our kings have made the journey and arrived on the correct day: Epiphany – while “some people” have had the kings in their manger scene all along... sniff...
Of course, we can only feel vaguely superior for a few moments, because if we stop to think about it, we have to realize that the kings, or whatever they may have been, will never arrive at that stable and will never take their place along side shepherds and the sweet little animals we use to decorate our manger scenes.
The problem with the Christmas Story is that there is not one story, but two. In our minds they quite easily run together. But when we trust our memories, some important details get dropped. Most of what we know as the Christmas story comes to us from Luke. Luke has shepherds. His telling of the story is particularly good for a warm and fuzzy Christmas.
But this Feast of the Epiphany directs us to Matthew – the “other” Christmas story. Matthew has wise men. And if you take away all the warm and fuzzy stuff from Luke, Matthew is telling us a much darker story.
Matthew begins by more or less calling the roll of Jesus' forebears, starting with Abraham – who fathered Isaac, who fathered Jacob, and so on generation after generation. It is a powerful list, full of twists and turns and illegitimate children and such. But its hard to imagine a happy family gathering around the Christmas Tree and one of the happy children begging to hear yet once again “the begats.” It's hard to imagine the Hallmark Christmas Special in which Matthew has a place.
When it comes to Jesus' birth, Mathew is in a “just the facts” sort of mood. Before their marriage, Mary is found to be pregnant so Joseph is going to quietly end the engagement. But an angel, the first character with a speaking part, gives Joseph the full story. And so Joseph takes Mary to his home and Jesus is born – at home. No muss, no fuss, no stable, no details... I haven't shortened it much because there isn't much to shorten...
That brings us up to today's feast – wise men, or magi, or astrologers appear in Jerusalem from the east. They were following a star, but they somehow seem to have lost sight of it. They have but one question: “Where is the infant king of the Jews?”
Ooops. This would be like walking into a hearing by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and asking “where is that infant communist who is going to take Joseph McCarthy's place?” Paranoid hell breaks loose.
Herod, King of the Paranoids, gets wind of the question and, like any truly insecure despot, he begins to fight. Herod learns from his minions that Jesus is to be found in Bethlehem. And so, in a touch of irony, it is Herod that puts the wise me back on the right path. Star back in sight, off they go to meet Jesus. And this is the epiphany – the manifestation: the star points to Jesus.
The wise men, while they're there, open their treasure chests and give gifts to the baby – gold, frankincense, and myrrh... notoriously inappropriate baby gifts... I had the understanding that the giving of the gifts was the point of the journey – bearing gifts we traverse afar, as the hymn says... But in Matthew's actual telling, it is worship that is the prime purpose of the wise men. The gifts come almost as an afterthought.
The wise men go home and the story gets much darker. In our calendar the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents has already come and gone, but its proper place in the sequence of things is still to come. Herod, in paranoid rage, tries to kill the infant contender for his throne by simply having all the little boys in Bethlehem killed. Talk about blunt weapons...
|Icon of Rachel weeping for her children|
Matthew is so sparse with details that, of course, over the centuries, we have had to invent them. So first these mysterious visitors acquire a sex – they become wise men; an occupation – they are astrologers or magicians; a number – there are three of them (because there were 3 gifts); upward social mobility – they are kings; they get names – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar; and perhaps most surprising – they acquire race, or least one does – one of them is black.
Along the way, these three kings acquire a back story. Details of their travel from wherever emerge. The story of Amahl and the Night Visitors is, for me, one of the most moving Christmas stories the Bible never told. As the kings make their way to Bethlehem, they stop for the night at the home of Amahl – a crippled child. Amahl lives with his poor, widowed mother (she has no name). They are destitute. Hardly able to feed themselves, they are certainly in no position to entertain royalty. And yet it is their home in which Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar take shelter for the night.
Amahl emerges from the imagination of Gian Carlo Menotti. It was a made-for-television opera – back in the day when television had higher aspirations. While I snarkily suggested earlier that one would not expect to find Matthew's Christmas story in a Hallmark Christmas Special, I may have been too clever by half – Amahl and the Night Visitors was, in fact, the very first Hallmark Christmas Special... way back in 1951. It's not exactly Matthew – to be honest its not Matthew at all, but it is surely inspired by Matthew...
Amahl and the Night Visitors finds Menotti at his most romantic – the score is lush and the music is beautiful. But one moment stands out in a particularly poignant way. When the kings have their first moment alone with the mother they ask if she has seen the child they seek. They describe him: His skin is the color of wheat, the color of dawn, his eyes are mild, and his hands are those of a king, as king he was born... And she answers yes, she has seen this child. It is her own child: Amahl. And then she laments that nobody will bring her child gifts, though he is sick, and poor, and hungry and cold...
I find that out of a made-for-television Hallmark special, a particular glimpse appears to me of what Matthew may be telling me in his hard-to-warm-up-to Christmas story.
The kings are looking so hard for the Jesus they expect, that Jesus, in the form of Amahl, stands right in front of them and they do not see him.
The good news of these mysterious wise travelers from afar is not that their journey was easy or direct, or that they were such gifted detectives – they needed the help of Herod after all. The good news is that they persevered.
Its quite fun and heart warming to locate ourselves in Luke's Christmas story – we can be shepherds or, perhaps cattle and sheep, or maybe even Joseph or Mary.
Locating ourselves in Matthew's Christmas story is more heart chilling, but a good exercise nonetheless. I can find myself among the magi who wander and get lost... who can not see Jesus standing face to face. I can find myself among the greedy minions who cling to Herod for power and protection, even when it calls for committing atrocities. And ultimately I am Herod – who would rather commit unspeakable acts than tolerate Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, God with me.
The joyful good news, the Gospel, is not that I'm prepared for Jesus in my life. The good news is that Jesus comes into our world just surely as Jesus came into Herod's world. Jesus comes because of our need, not because of our desire. Our world is often dark, unjust, cruel, and wicked.
And so we pray come, Lord Jesus.