Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:1-12
Today is the twelfth day of Christmas. The Christmas season will end tomorrow when we begin the Epiphany season, so that means we have one more day to wish each other a Merry Christmas.
In Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God putting on flesh and living with us in the person of Jesus Christ. In Epiphany, we celebrate the revelation to the world of God’s saving work in the person of Jesus Christ.
One way to think about these two seasons is to think of the light of Christ. For us in the northern hemisphere, Christmas comes during the darkest days of the year, and it’s during this darkness that we celebrate the light of Christ coming into our world as a human being. Epiphany is the celebration of the spreading of the light of Christ to the world.
Today’s Gospel from Matthew happens to be one of the options for this Second Sunday after Christmas, but it’s also the Gospel that’s assigned for Epiphany, which is always on January 6. The overlap of today’s Gospel is actually quite appropriate, given the development of the church calendar.
One thing to note is that the feast of Epiphany predates the celebration of Christmas, and our earliest records of it date from the early third century. Epiphany was one of three primary feast days in the early church; the other two were Easter and Pentecost. Epiphany focused on the Baptism of Jesus as a moment of God’s revelation to the world. Another aspect of the Epiphany was the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles as seen in the magi who brought gifts to Jesus, and gifts were originally exchanged during Epiphany. Later on in the fourth century, Christmas was celebrated as its own season, with its focus on the Incarnation. The result is that we now have the two seasons of Christmas and Epiphany. And today, we find ourselves with a Christmas and Epiphany Gospel about Magi, who enter the house of the child Jesus to worship him and offer him gifts.
This is an amazing story. The fact that it’s included in Matthew’s Gospel is incredible, because by all accounts, the Magi did not belong in the house where Jesus was.
They have been referred to as kings and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that we use here at St John’s refers to them as wisemen, but the most accurate translation of the Greek is magi, which comes from a root word meaning “magic”. Nonbiblical sources from the time reveal that Magi were a priestly class from Persia that practiced astrology and other magical arts, including divination, the interpretation of dreams, and the making of potions.
None of these things are looked on favorably by the Scriptures. In fact, they are forbidden.
Before the Israelites entered the promised land, God made it clear that they were to live faithfully to God by honoring their covenant with God. They were to remain faithful to the law and not live like the Gentiles.
Listen to what God says in Deuteronomy to the Israelites before they move into the land God gives them.
“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.”
In this passage God forbids the practice of sorcery and magic because they are abhorrent to God. They are out of bounds and wrong. They have no place in the life of God’s covenant people.
Magi came to be used as a term to refer to all magicians and sorcerers. Pharaoh’s sorcerers who contested with Moses and the signs of God during the ten plagues against Egypt. Balaam, who was hired to curse Israel. And the dream interpreters in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court, who could not interpret dreams as Daniel could. All of these were referred to as magi, contrary to the ways and saving action of God.
And in today’s Gospel from Matthew, to whom does the Incarnate God reveal Godself? To the Magi. It is truly an epiphany of a gracious and loving God.
The revelation of Jesus is given to the Magi, who are outside of God’s covenant people, who have traveled from another place, and who practice a different religion. God’s revelation to the world about the good news of God’s Son doesn’t come to the political powers of the day. It doesn’t come to the priests and religious experts or those in the temple. The revelation of Christ to the Gentiles is given to these Magi.
One aspect of following in the way of Jesus is being asked questions that we don’t have answers for. And I feel this is amplified by being a priest. It’s like the collar turns the intensity up to eleven and I’m expected to have answers that I don’t.
I was recently in a conversation with someone from a fundamentalist Christian denomination, and it became pretty clear that they were sizing me up. We were like boxers circling each other in the ring. They were throwing things out there to see how I’d react and what I’d reveal. They wanted to see if I believed “correctly” as they did. There was a pause in our conversation and they asked me, “You do believe that Jesus is the only way for salvation, right?”
I knew what they were getting at. According to this person’s understanding, if someone isn’t a Christian, they are totally cut off from God. And in their frame of reference, that meant people who aren’t Christians live in a state of hell and will go to hell after they die. This person was certain about this. And they wanted to make sure I was certain about it, too. But I’m not.
I believe in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. I believe in the scriptures and the creeds. But I do not presume to know the will of God when it comes to the states of the souls of the billions of people alive today and the many who have come before and will come after us. I don’t even presume to know the state of my own soul. Only God knows that.
I believe what the Nicene Creed says, Jesus Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” It is Jesus’ job to judge, not mine. I have no certainty about the eternal or spiritual state of any person.
But I’m certain of this one thing. That the God that has been revealed in the face of Jesus Christ loves us unconditionally. I believe that with every fiber of my being. God loves Hindus, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, Christians, and even Magi who watch for signs and follow stars from distant lands.
The God we see in Jesus Christ is one who reveals himself in ways that we often can’t understand or see. We are the ones who have our own temples, and scriptures, and religious professionals, and we often have no idea how God might be working in the lives of people we may dismiss as being outside of the realm of God’s love and activity.
There’s a custom associated with Epiphany that extends the celebration of the revelation of Jesus to the world from the church to the home. It involves writing something in chalk above the doorway into your home. It recalls the story of the magi did. They had searched diligently for Jesus over a long journey, and once they entered his house, they paid him honor and gave him gifts.
So the custom has arisen that Christians will use chalk to mark the doorway of their homes with the four digits of the year separated by the initials CMB. So for this year of 2020 it would be 20 + C + M + B 20. The initials C, M, and B, are the supposed names of the Magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. We don’t know their real names or how many there were. It’s typically assumed there were three magi since three gifts are named, but Eastern Orthodox celebrate twelve magi. The initials CMB also stand for the Latin, Christus mansionem benedicat which means May Christ bless this house.
I invite you to try it for yourself this year. Grab a piece of chalk and celebrate the story of God’s revelation to all the peoples of the world. Enact the story in a concrete way over the doorway of your home. Let it be a reminder of the Jesus who works and reveals himself to peoples from different places and different religions, and who bids them with the star of his love to where he is, and welcomes them into his house.
Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar. Christus mansionem benedicat.