Of all the Christmas songs, either secular or sacred, that we tend to hear played during this season, I’ve always thought that John Lennon’s seems the least joyful. It’s called “So This is Christmas,” and the very title sounds like something you would say with a sigh as your shoulders slumped in resignation or even despair.
In fact, the whole first verse carries on like that: “So this is Christmas / And what have you done? / Another year over / and a new one just begun.” Try to contain your enthusiasm John! When he goes on to wish us a very merry Christmas and a happy new year, I don’t really believe him, especially when he continues, “let’s hope it’s a good one / without any fear.”
But that song keeps coming to mind for today. First, because today is the twelfth day of Christmas, which means that it is officially the most Christmas we can have in a single church year. But at this point, for many of us, that’s starting to seem like more of a burden than a blessing. At this point, most of us here have opened all the presents, eaten all the special treats, sung all the special songs, and attended all the special celebrations that we intend to do this Christmas.
And so yes, while we recognize that we are still officially in the Christmas season, most of us are inwardly singing some version of “so this is Christmas;” even if it has truly been a good one, a merry Christmas and a happy new year, we’re ready to stop celebrating that transition and just start living into it; it’s as if Lennon and we are saying, “so, this is Christmas…still.”
That’s because our celebration of Christmas is built mostly around the Gospel of Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth. It’s in Luke that we find most of the familiar Christmas stories: the Roman census that sends Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, laying Jesus in a manger after he’s born because there’s no room in the inn, the angels appearing to the shepherds out on the hillsides surrounding Bethlehem, announcing Jesus’ birth, the shepherds coming to see Jesus as a result of that message; all of that is in Luke, and all the action seems to end basically on Christmas, the day (or at least the night) of Jesus’ birth.
But Matthew either didn’t know or didn’t care about any of that, because he repeats none of it in his own version. In fact, Matthew spends almost no time on the Christmas story, the story of Jesus’ birth; he simply notes that when the birth happened, Joseph named him Jesus as he was instructed to do by an angel in a dream. For Joseph, the interesting part is after all that, when the Wise Men come to Jerusalem, traveling “from the east,” as the Scripture says, tipped off by a star that arose to mark Christ’s birth.
If all those stories belong together, though, which is how we tend to tell them, stitching both Luke and Matthew together into a larger narrative of Jesus’ birth, then I suspect Mary and Joseph probably had some of the same feelings most of us are having today when the Wise Men showed up: “so this is Christmas… still.” They, like us, would have gone through the humble beauty of Jesus in the manger, would have experienced the euphoria of the shepherds arriving to tell mind-boggling stories of a heavenly host of angels singing “glory to God!” over the birth of Jesus as Savior and Lord, and then would have finally gone to bed.
Because it would have taken at least several months to journey over land from Persia to Bethlehem in Judea, and some Christian traditions say they didn’t arrive until about two years after Jesus’ birth. So imagine Mary and Joseph, with the extraordinary but exhausting events of Christmas now well behind them, feeling like they were now going to have something resembling a normal life raising this baby, but looking up one day to see some very unusual guests arriving and asking to see their baby.
Unfortunately, we get a lot of things wrong about this story in the way we retell it, which tend to get in the way of its true power. You may know the Christmas/Epiphany carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” which might be musically lovely, but Biblically, it is pretty flawed. First, we have no idea how many of them there were; Matthew identifies three kinds of gifts, but not how many people are carrying them. And it certainly says nothing about their names or that they come from places like Africa or Arabia; those are all legends that sprang up much later.
Second, none of them were kings. Our version of the Scriptures today called them “wise men,” which is closer, but still very incomplete. The word in Greek is “magi,” which you’ve probably heard before, and which is a specific term used for Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrianism is a religious tradition that began in Persia, known today as Iran; Zoroastrians worship a god of wisdom, have a long and rich history of astrology, and were led by a class of priests known as magi. So they are not three, nor kings, but they are from the Orient: the archaic word “Orient” means “east,” which is what Matthew says about them, but the word he uses literally means “the rising,” as in the rising of the sun, which of course is in the east.
Which brings us to why this story matters so much for us today. The rising of the sun is one of the most powerful metaphors in the world for hope, because the sun is certain to rise even when it seems like all light in the world has gone out in the middle of the night. What’s important about the magi is not the gifts they bring nor that they are earthly kings bowing before Jesus, nor that they represent different corners of the non-Jewish world.
What’s important is that the magi respond to Jesus’ birth with hope: confident hope, passionate hope, hope enough to propel them from their comfortable homes and places of study across difficult terrain and even more difficult borders, because while they were Zoroastrian in terms of religion, they were Parthians in terms of politics. The Parthian Empire, with modern-day Iran at its heart, was the bitter rival of the Roman Empire at the time, and the two were often at war and always in conflict; it would have been dangerous, even foolish, ironically, for these wise men of the Parthians to journey deep into Roman territory, just to see this baby.
But such was their hope. And it would have been very understandable if they didn’t respond that way; they could have responded like Herod, who hears the news of the birth of the Messiah, believes it, but reacts with profound fear instead, because he recognizes that Jesus is a direct threat to his power, and he intends to eliminate that threat just as he has so many others. But both he and fear itself will prove unable to do so, despite their best efforts. As we heard last week, Herod’s fear of Jesus being born as Messiah is such that he decides to project his fear and insecurity into the world to try and get rid of it, as the Holy Family flees his soldiers who set out to murder all the boys under the age of two around Bethlehem. But it is impossible to get rid of fear through more fear; only love can cast out fear.
“A very merry Christmas,” Lennon sings, “and a happy new year; let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.” The truth is, this new year has not been a happy one so far. It’s less than a week old, but the world is on fire, literally and figuratively: Australia is engulfed in bushfires so big they are literally generating their own weather patterns; the flames of hate continue to rise in anti-Semitic attacks in New York; and the Middle East is shaking with what could be a firestorm of conflict between the United States and Iran, the land of the magi.
The question for us, then, is whether we will respond to all of that with hope and love, or with more fear; whether we put our faith in the signs of fear in the world around us, or in the sign of hope that this is Christmas, still: in Jesus Christ God is present and active in the very midst of all the fear and violence and danger of this world, coming not as a warrior-king but as a defenseless child, to show that hate and violence and fear are all powerless in the end against such love.
And in the meantime, we can be firefighters for Christ rather than fire-spreaders for the world, until all of the fires are extinguished, and the ashes scatter on the wind, and the shadows run and hide from the rising light, never to return.