Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Jan. 3, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Jan 3, 2021 in Christmas, Sermons

The Second Sunday after
Christmas Day

January 3, 2021

This is the week; Wednesday is Epiphany, and it’s celebrated differently all over the world. Often our traditions get so embedded that we lose track of what’s scriptural and what has come from long held folklore and later periods in Christianity. We don’t know where the magi or kings came from, how many there were or what their names were. We don’t know if they were kings, star-studiers, wise elders, or something else, or even how long it was before they came. We do know coming to ask Herod’s people the whereabouts of the “one born King of the Jews” provoked Herod to fear, deceit, and later violence when he learns they bypassed him without obeying his command to tell him where the child was.

Most of the story is focused on their pilgrimage to pay him homage, to worship the Holy Child, and these kingly gentiles (any people who are not Jews) acknowledged him and became some of the first he is revealed to If we read a few more verses into Matthew’s gospel, we would hear that out of fear of displacement, Herod tries to rid himself of the threat that this newborn is to be “King of the Jews” — he sees Jesus as a rival for the title. The Magi never use the term ‘Christ’ or even name Jesus, only “King of the Jews.” It is as if those words call across Matthew’s gospel from from beginning to end, when the charge against Jesus and what is written on the cross to mock-identify him is King of the Jews. These two occurrences are the only place Matthew uses them, and his is the only gospel where it is invoked even from the beginning. Mark, Luke and John only use it around Jesus’ arrest and death. Matthew alone uses this to point to the enormity of who Jesus is, to help us envision faith as a whole cloth of the King of the Jews. From the start of his life among us to his earthly end, where we soon glimpse resurrection’s new life and see that he has come to us all. Followers identify him less as King of the Jews, rather as Savior of the world.

I think of the Magi quietly discerning from their charts and drawings of the night sky what that wild star might mean. Step by small step, until it wasn’t small and quiet any longer and they know they must get up and go. From the first days, the Christ Child was revealed to foreign wise men or kings, as well as the local shepherds. They’re depicted in nativity scenes in royal-worthy clothes and with varying characteristics like skin color. Being “from the East” is like code for where the rising of the light comes. The word used for East here actually translates as “the rising” or “from whence the sun rises.” Again a small simple phrase brings awareness; Jesus’ birth is paired with rising light, light which is symbolic of salvation throughout scripture. Matthew alludes to Isaiah’s prophesy here; “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” …has risen. Then “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Light for the breadth of God’s people. Matthew emphasizes the arrival of the Magi as fulfillment of prophecy.

The star they have seen and followed is also light within the darkness, even trustworthy to steer by. From the Hebrew Scriptures (Numbers) we hear the star will rise out of [the House of] Jacob, symbolizing the Messiah they have long anticipated. The good news of his birth is known to Mary and Joseph, shepherds and angels, and also those gentile Magi from far away nations, —from where light rises daily. These are all people who make a long pilgrimage to see the baby whom they already believe is born a king. We also make this pilgrimage to him, a lifelong journey. The magi are all of us too.

I love talking with children about who are “The Magi” of today. Their answers are broad and fascinating — and funny sometimes. (Superman, Harry Potter, and “My mom” are my favorite responses!) Like the magi, all of us show willing wisdom to come worship the Messiah. You may not have driven here today, but you are ‘here.’ For some navigating the technology to ‘get here’, print the bulletin, silence incoming calls, and log on to Zoom is much more challenging than the drive would have been! Whatever your journey to come to Christ today, you are in good company and vast history. 

This powerful journey is celebrated more widely in symbolic ways. In Spain children write to the magi about gifts, and are taught they come from Europe, Asia and Africa. The Three Kings bring their gifts on the eve of Epiphany, making the long trek by camel of course. Sometimes they sit on three great chairs together, intently listening to the children who come up to them, much like US children sit on Santa Claus’ lap. Some have costumed Epiphany parades to reenact the magi’s journey right through town, with them throwing sweets out to onlookers.

I want to sidetrack a moment. In addition to spiritual traditions of beauty or ones purely for fun, there are also some we need help to rethink sometimes. Epiphany parades and pageants are an example. Only about ten years ago a campaign started in Spain by those seeking to end the long practice of the king called ‘Balthazar’ being traditionally played by a white person in ‘Blackface’ makeup. Madrid has been working to end this, but many justify continuing it as ‘a tradition,’ saying it’s not meant to be offensive. It’s a painful sadness that attempting to be more wholly reflective of the makeup of the communities is met with hospitality even now. How can people celebrate the arrival of those Gentile kings from foreign lands by such a hurtful misleading practice! They came to pay homage to a Messiah who would welcome all people. And all the more absurd since most depictions we see of the Holy Family, (and angels and shepherds) show them all as white; unlikely given they came from first century Nazareth and Bethlehem. 

It is easy to be unaware of the hurtfulness of such things, it means listening and observing and collaborating to find how we can be more aware, more loving and vastly better in our respect for each other. Are we sometimes too embarrassed to speak up? To ask? Afraid of suggestions we wouldn’t like?Afraid they’d be shot down? How were those Magi received in Bethlehem? I’d love to hear your experiences of attempting to share in dismantling such things. It is all of these small awarenesses, small steps, simple considerations, that make this journey great. Perhaps there have been some practices you’ve had a change or heart about or surprising lessons learned during this pandemic.

In the Philippines children leave their shoes out for sweets and money, not from St. Nicholas, but from the Tres Reyes, or Three Magi Kings. In Paraguay, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic children cut grass or greens to put in a box under their beds for the King’s camels, and they receive gifts on Epiphany in honor of the first gifts brought to the Christ Child by the Magi. In Poland, the Czech Republic, and some Germanic regions, people ‘Chalk the doors” by writing the three kings’ later-assigned name initials, C+M+B, at the doors of homes they know to be Christian. It is a new year’s blessing for occupants, and the initials are also to reflect Christus mansionem benedicat (May Christ Bless This House). This is done by star-singers; children who go caroling door to door carrying a star and dressed as magi, receiving donations for charities. Sadly, in Austria and Germany the child representing Balthazar is often still wearing blackface makeup, and opening the conversation in those places has been difficult. Many don’t consider it racist because it is not intended to be a negative portrayal. Does knowing it is hurtful come to make the intention something quite different?

Our pilgrimages are to be done with awareness. They begin again every year in a sense, and rightly could be marked by sharing with the Kings a venture into unknown ways and places in search of Christ. There’s been much talk of wanting to leave 2020 far behind, yet for a while 2021 will be much the same. My hope is that rather than simply escaping 2020 or going back to normal, we will instead look ahead to our spiritual journeys, open to where these go. I encourage you to drop the idea of New Year’s resolutions and instead consider a new year journey with God or a Christ-seeking pilgrimage. Pray each day and ask to see even the small things anew. When we feel like rushing to the big event, to the next goal, to wanting our way, remember how, like Epiphany, such things come to us constantly. New demands or expectations or big things will always be coming up. We can learn and grow and listen our way through them, knowing that each step adds to a holy pilgrimage. Make it your spiritual practice to reflect on this part of it every day. Listen more than talk in prayer —or in person sometimes, give thanks for seeing Christ alongside you or waiting in unexpected places, showing you a way forward that may be humbling or daunting, but also tremendous. In each small step, in openness to it all, we learn more of what God is up to in us and in the world. Trust that even in darkness there is enough Christ-light to see things anew, including ourselves. Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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