By Rev. J.C. Austin
“A pedestal waiting for a monument.” That’s what Pierre Charles L’Enfant called Jenkins’ Hill, the high point of the area we now know as the District of Columbia. L’Enfant had been commissioned by President Washington to design the “Federal City,” the new national capital of the United States which was later named after Washington, in that area.
L’Enfant won the commission because he had a grand vision for a city that would befit a great nation, as he said it, and he thought carefully not simply about what would be practical and necessary, but how the city itself would embody the democratic values of the United States.
And so the monument that L’Enfant decided should be built on that pedestal was what he called the “Congress House,” because it was the Congress that was envisioned in the newly ratified Constitution of the United States, which most fully embodied the depths of the democratic vision of that document to him. The Congress House would be the place in which representatives of the people, elected by the people, would gather and create the laws best suited to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty” as the Preamble of that Constitution defined its purpose.
And therefore the Congress House, which became known as the Capitol, should be not simply a functional gathering space for the legislative branch, but the defining monument to democracy and to the American people within the capital of the United States, on the pedestal of Jenkins’ Hill that is now known simply as Capitol Hill.
And just in case there was any doubt about the centrality of the Congress and its house in this republic, L’Enfant literally designed the city around the Capitol Building with a compass, and he established the prime meridian of the United States – the longitude marked at zero degrees from which distances would be measured and journeys plotted, to go right through the Capitol Building itself.
So it was not simply the hill or the building that symbolized the centrality of the Congress to the democratic values and processes of the United States. It intended people to literally navigate their way in the United States by the Congress and the democratic commitments that it both represents and safeguards as their fixed point of guidance.
Almost 1800 years earlier, there was an even bigger shift of a focus point for navigation in the world, but it was communicating something similar, though only a few recognized it at first. Our Scripture today and our tradition identifies those navigators as “wise men from the east,” but that’s not really what the text says.
What it says is magi from the east came to Jerusalem after Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Magi is the plural of magus, which was a type of priest in the Zoroastrian religion of Persia, who studied astronomy and astrology. The appearance of them in Jerusalem, then, would have been very unusual and therefore surprising, even more so when they start asking around about where the child can be found who has been born king of the Jews, because they had “observed his star at its rising,” and apparently they used it to navigate to Jerusalem, assuming that anybody born the king of the Jews would be born there.
But, as far as anybody in Jerusalem knew, no child had been born to King Herod recently; especially King Herod, who gets word of these strange visitors, asking who are asking even stranger questions. And Herod, of all people, is the one who realizes what this could mean. He gathers all of the chief priests and religious scribes together and asks them where the Messiah – the one who will be sent by God to rule on God’s behalf, to proclaim God’s word to the people and to intercede between God and the people – where that Messiah is to be born.
Which, of course, would mean that King Herod’s reign would be at an end. Herod has no intention of giving up power, however. So once he learns that the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem, he sends the magi there to look for the child, and tells them to let him know where they find him so he can come and “pay homage” to him.
The magi believe him, which is another good reason not to call them “wise men,” and head out. And this time, paying closer attention to the star itself, they navigate by it to Bethlehem and it stops over Jesus. The star, the fixed point by which they have been navigating, points directly to where the infant Jesus lays, establishing the new prime meridian for measuring and navigating by God’s presence and work in the world.
And the magi go in and present the gifts they have brought, especially to this place for this time to this person: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Now, there is a tradition back to the early centuries of the church that these gifts have symbolic significance, which you can still hear in the lyrics of the most famous carol about the Magi, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” As we’ve already established, they’re magi, not kings; that’s a misconception that sprang up from trying to apply some passages in Isaiah and the Psalms to this event.
But the lyrics of the song reflect the traditional symbolism of the gift, with three verses in the voice of each of the magi explaining why they brought that gift: gold, symbolizing a king’s crown; frankincense, symbolizing his divine nature, because incense is burned to gods; and myrrh, symbolizing both his human nature and sacrificial death, because it is associated with anointing dead bodies. And the carol concludes by summarizing the symbolism, the significance of meaning, for all three: “Glorious now behold him arise; King and God and sacrifice.”
One of the crazier things that we say sometimes is that something is “just a symbol.” But if something is a symbol at all, that means it takes on a significance and power far beyond its material nature; it communicates something in visual form that is important and powerful and meaningful and transcendent. That’s one of the many reasons why what happened outside and within the Capitol Building last Wednesday was so horrifying. It was horrifying on a literal level, of course: a sitting President of the United States, who has definitively lost an election, incited a crowd of thousands to march on the Capitol while the United States Congress was inside certifying the results of that election, for the purpose of stopping Congress from doing so.
But it was even more horrifying on a symbolic level, because when the crowd followed President Trump’s direction to march on the Capitol, it then initiated not just a literal assault on the United States Congress but a symbolic assault on democracy itself, on the monument to democracy and the will of the American people that L’Enfant placed on Jenkins’ Hill and the actual practice of democracy that was going on inside.
And that was certainly not lost on the protesters, some of whom made a point of defacing the interior in various offensive ways once they had breached the doors. Others photographed and videoed themselves and others asserting their dominance over the places of legislative and procedural power inside the Capitol from which Members of Congress had just fled, forced to suspend their work of certifying the election results for their own safety.
And perhaps most offensively, Confederate battle flags were waved and paraded through the Capitol, the notorious symbol of those so dedicated to opposing true democracy and freedom that they seceded from the United States and initiated a war against it to defend their practice of subjecting other human beings to perpetual slavery and disenfranchisement.
All of these things were done because they are not “just” symbols; they are communicating something in visual form that has significant meaning for those who are committing these acts: that if their voices are not the majority, then something is inherently wrong; that their will is the only will that matters; that their claim to power overrides all other claims, no matter how much better and more authentic those claims might be.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the basic tenets of American democracy and the U.S. Constitution would know that such beliefs are incompatible with those tenets. And yet we cannot honestly say simply, “this is not who we are.” We can and should say, this is not who we are meant to be; this is not who we intend to be; this is not who we have to be. But from the very beginning, the United States has been locked in a struggle between the promise and demands of our democratic values, and the temptation to subvert or circumvent them for factional gain at the expense of others, and the values do not always win.
And yet democracy also provides us with an opportunity to stop, and assess, to confess and turn in new directions, to live more fully into those values. The failure to live up to those values does not negate the significance of our commitments to those values; on the contrary, it is through those values that we can hold ourselves accountable and be inspired to embody them all the more strongly.
And the same is true for the Presbyterian Church. Presbyterians always had a significant theological commitment and contribution to the promise and demands of democratic ideals, even when we have also struggled and sometimes failed to resist the temptation to subvert or circumvent them. But at our best, like our fellow Americans, we have been an important voice for those ideals both in the Christian Church and in the United States, and we have drawn those ideals straight from the witness of Scripture, including the meaning of the Epiphany story itself.
The Reformed tradition, the expression of Christian faith that began with the Protestant Reformation in Geneva under John Calvin, from which Presbyterians come, has had an outsized impact on the development of modern democracy around the world through its theology and structures. Here in the United States, the American Revolution was even called “the Presbyterian Rebellion” at times by some, including King George III, both because Presbyterian preachers were such ardent supporters of it from the pulpit and because their ideas about humanity, sovereignty, politics, and power – and the limitations thereof – exerted such an influence on the ideas of the Revolution. In fact, James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, had been the star student of John Witherspoon, the President of Princeton University, and a brilliant Presbyterian minister and scholar who taught not theology, but political science.
The fundamental ideas and ideals of the Constitution: separation of powers, checks and balances, the inviolable right of the people to select their leaders, that leaders chosen by the people as particularly called and gifted should be both entrusted and held accountable for making the decisions for the common good, the idea that truth and goodness are most likely to be discerned and pursued communally rather than by an individual; that the voice of the minority should be heard and protected but the voice of the majority should rule; those all come from the theology and practice of Presbyterian governance, going back to Geneva, which was deeply suspicious of concentrated or imposed power.
We do not believe that democracy is directly ordained by God, any more than we believe in the divine right of kings. We don’t believe it is perfect by a long shot; in fact, we believe that the majority will definitely get things wrong, which is why we bend over backwards to protect the voice of the minority.
But we do believe that democracy is the most faithful and effective way of ordering our common life according to God’s will as a church, and the most just way of ordering our common life to protect both individual liberty and the common good as a nation. That’s because both inside the church and out, democracy makes the government subject to the people rather than the other way around, and thus is less likely to confuse the government itself with God’s will; and because the most basic commitment of democracy is supposed to be that everyone, the government is of all the people, no matter who they are or what they have or what they do or who they know, has an equal say in the most important collective decision for the people: whom they will commission to lead them.
And Presbyterians draw those commitments straight out of the witness of Scripture, including this Epiphany story. King Herod is a symbol of what happens when you give too much power to one person: collaborating with the Roman Empire to subjugate and occupy his own people because he benefits personally from it; terrified of being replaced or displaced by anyone, especially one with as unchallengeable a claim as the very Messiah; willing to do whatever it takes to keep that from happening.
But far more important is the Christ child himself. In a sense, Jesus himself is a symbol. And if ever the phrase “just a symbol” did NOT apply, this is the case. But one of the main reasons for the Incarnation of God in Jesus, God taking on human form and being, is to communicate something in material form that is important and powerful and meaningful and transcendent: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
Too often we hear the word “gave” in that famous verse only in terms of his death on the cross, and that’s a problem for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that it overlooks the Incarnation of Christ as the time that God most truly “gave” God’s only Son. But God gave him not as an even more powerful warrior-king that would depose Herod and drive out the Romans. God gave his only Son in the form of a simple, infant peasant boy, as vulnerable and ordinary in his humanity as any other human being, embodying and symbolizing the promise from the creation of humanity itself: “God said, ‘let us make human kind in our own image, after our own likeness.’”
And in this child, God came down and was Incarnate in human form itself, fully God, fully human. And it’s the fully God part that embodies that transcendent power of God being among us, God being with us, Emmanuel as we often call Jesus. And it is that very universal humanity that then gives the true power to his death on a cross, and the resurrection that follows, and which therefore means that every human life has infinite value in God’s eyes, and should therefore in ours.
And there also lies the promise that should both comfort and inspire us today: that when faced with seemingly impossible situations, God always finds another way, a way to ensure that God’s will is done without meeting violence with violence; injustice with injustice; hate with hate; fear with fear. God finds another way to ensure that God’s will is done; rather than having Jesus grow up to challenge Herod’s rule through a trial by combat; a way in which Jesus himself willingly undertakes the ultimate trial of enduring humanity trying to push God’s presence and will out of this world through death on a cross, and failing.
The question for us, then, is whether we will follow the way that God provides; whether and how we will orient ourselves to the prime meridian of the Christ child; how we ourselves will be guided by Christ’s star not simply to find him and honor him, but to literally go home by another way. Like the magi, we don’t have that star to guide us home. But that is because the knowledge we need has already been revealed to us through the epiphany, the revealing of Christ to us. Christ’s light has filled us so that we, now, may be a star of Christ ourselves; we ourselves become another way for Christ to be revealed in the world.
Amidst all of the other iconic images of what happened in the Capitol on Wednesday, the one that is the most powerful is the one of Rep. Andy Kim. He is a congressman from New Jersey and he’s a Democrat, but he’s elected from a community that voted twice for Donald Trump. So he embodies someone who is able to get past some of this bitter polarization and enmity that is present in our world.
Rep. Kim is the son of immigrants and he also happens to be a Presbyterian. He wasn’t in the Chamber when everything went down on Wednesday; he arrived later into the Capitola rotunda. And he found the debris on the floor, the smashed glass, the scattered trash, the defacements and defilements that had taken place. In this room that symbolizes the heart of the heart of democracy in the United States.
And Rep. Kim got down on his knees and pulled a trash bag over, and began picking up the trash, slowly and methodically without telling anyone else. He was captured anonymously and unknowingly on camera. As he did so, he filled bag after bag, working for an hour and a half, and then he went in to other spaces and did the same thing. He did so because of his love for this room, and for what it meant, and this country, and because it was something else that he could do.
Now that’s not going to change the world, and it’s not going to solve our problems. But it’s not just a symbol. It is a witness to how we can find another way, to acknowledge that things are broken, to begin to clean them up, to prepare the space for moving forward. Because Rep. Kim finally finished his work and went back to the chamber of Congress and took up his office once again.
Few of us are going to have the opportunity to do anything as both humble and dramatic as that. But all of us have the opportunity to begin picking up the garbage. Begin reaching out and claiming that things are broken and we need
to change them. To find another way to be with one another in community.
And when our own light falters and we start following the ways of injustice and fear, we have the gift of others to call us back through their own light, and to do so for others in turn. Because we’re not left with one star in the heavens but constellations of them, each of us a part of the constellations, to shine out Christ’s light and to show the ways to go home, to ourselves and others.
Because no matter how long the shadows and gloom may grow, each of us has the gift and the calling and the power and the opportunity, if we look for it, to radiate the light of Christ through the Holy Spirit into ministries of love, justice, mercy, and peace – sometimes in dramatic ways and sometimes in ways that no one notices –but they are all part of life. So we can continue to do the work so God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, and we all finally come home. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.