Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you always.
Today is a day for celebration! Pop quiz: who knows what we are celebrating? (Hint: it’s in your bulletin and we probably already said it many times.) Epiphany! Yes! And who knows what Epiphany marks? Traditionally, it’s the commemoration of when the three wise men came from the East, following the star, to meet the newborn king. (Excellent work. 10 points to Gryffindor.) Okay, so, where in the story does it say there were three? (Right!) It doesn’t. There are three gifts, so we assume three givers. Fair enough. And these wise men, what else do we hear them called, either in scripture or in our wider culture, songs, stories…? (Kings, Magi, etc.).
A very wise woman, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, annotated the New Testament from a Jewish perspective. In it, she explains that these men were Persian—do we know where Persia is? Modern-day Iran—and that they were astrologers. The word Magi denotes specific Zoroastrian astrologer-priests from Persia, even. These astrologer-priests studied the skies for clarity and wisdom. Astrology in our modern era is viewed by some as a very serious discipline, by others as kind of fun and a little hokey, and by many as dangerous or even evil. Dr. Levine says that early Jewish readers would have shared these latter opinions, that astrologers were foolish if not harmful. So why are these astrologers considered wise? Presumably because of where their starry discovery leads them. Let’s get back to the story.
Jesus is born! Merry Christmas! Hallelujah! Our Persian astrologer-priests are perplexed by what they have seen in the night sky. They saw an unusually bright star and had an epiphany—this star signaled the birth of a child in Judea who was God, come to life on earth.
Being wise men, as the story tells us, they knew they had to make the trek to see him for themselves. To see if what they had read in the stars could really be the truth. Their route to Jesus takes them through Jerusalem, where they meet Herod, King of Judea. Remember, these Persian astrologer-priests are not Jews, and are not under Herod’s rule or the rule of this child they are calling King. But they tell this other king what they know, and that they are going to witness it firsthand.
King Herod does not want to make the journey with them, but he wants them to report back about the exact location of this newborn king on their way home. King Herod is not a good dude. These Persians don’t know that, but remember that they are wise. At the end of our Gospel text, what does it say about their return trip? “After being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went home to their country by another road.” Herod, will, unfortunately, not take this very well. He is very nervous that this child will grow up to assume his throne, and so he wants him killed. But because he does not know where the child is, he instead orders the murder of every child in the region that is the same approximate age as Jesus—2 years old. We call this the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. We have a day set aside on the church calendar for it, the fourth day of Christmas, December 28th. Jesus’ family flees to Egypt. This is why we often say that Jesus was a refugee; his family sought refuge in a foreign nation to save his life from this massacre.
The Gospel is complicated, right from the start. Jesus lives! But these children die. It’s only the second chapter of Matthew’s version of the story and we already have murder and confusion. Our modern world, full of terror, is, to be frank, par for the course. I do not mean to minimize the sin and death that plague us. On the contrary! Jesus was born into a world with a despot so brutal, he ordered the massacre of untold numbers of children. In 2019, in our world of immigrant detention and family separation, of famine, and war, and greed—Jesus lives!
The Isaiah text for this week is among my absolute favorites. “Arise! Shine! For your light has come!” I can imagine the prophet crying. “Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you” (Isaiah 60:1-2).
Have you ever wondered about why we celebrate Christmas during December? We of the Northern Hemisphere so desperately need this light. Our days are short and cold. It is harder to resist our thoughts of everything that is wrong in the world. In the Southern Hemisphere, I can only imagine what it is like to hear these words while the sun blazes overhead. There is no ignoring that shine.
So, what does all of this mean for us?
Personally, I have set the intention to make 2019 into Twenty-Shine-Teen. If you’ve been hanging out at The Belfry for long, you’ve seen me in glittery shoes (which of course I wore tonight) or perhaps my signature neon. You may have heard me refer to #ShineTheory—a phrase coined by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman that is, briefly, about collaboration instead of competition—I don’t shine if you don’t shine.
It is a little bit wonky to have this celebration of the light of Christ shining on our present darkness at the same time as we are all being pressured to improve ourselves in the new year. We talk every once in a while about Christianity being countercultural, and this is just one more way.
You may have resolved any number of things for your new year, and I hope that you stick to the ones that show off just how much you already shine. I hope you stick to those—and only those—that make you feel good about who you’re becoming. I hope you’re not feeling pressured to change yourself too much—especially in a season and a culture obsessed with thinness, beauty, wealth, success, and conforming to very specific notions of femininity and masculinity. I am here to tell you that you are already exactly who you need to be. God already loves you as you are, God already calls you by name, God already shines on you and through you.
On Epiphany, it’s already Twenty-Shine-Teen. Thanks be to God! Amen.