There’s Easter candy in the stores now. Not just Valentine’s Day candy; that is actually just a little over a month away, so that doesn’t surprise me. But Easter candy? Apparently so. A pastor friend of mine posted a picture of piles of Cadbury chocolate cream Easter eggs in his local store with the sign, “Hop to it; Easter is coming!” Which, I can tell you, is not the sign that any pastor wants to read in early January, for many different reasons.
But in any case, things are clearly moving on. The season of Christmas may have officially ended just yesterday on the twelfth day of Christmas, but even the most hardcore observer of Christian liturgical traditions would have to admit that the “silent night” of Christmas Eve feels like a long time ago, and that the excitement and energy of the Christmas season has largely dissipated. The stores and radio stations switched over almost immediately on December 26, but at this point, everything is being put away that isn’t already done: the wrapping paper has been recycled, boxes have been broken down, special treats and leftovers have either been eaten or thrown away, and new toys have found a home. And just so you know: today is officially the last day that you can claim that it’s religious observance rather that procrastination that is the reason your decorations are all still up (if you’re like me, you might need the reminder that it can be a surprisingly thin line between faithfulness and laziness!). And yet here we are, largely settled back into normal life, with a combination of wistfulness and relief that all the celebrating is behind us, when these wise men from the East come riding up and dismount, pulling gifts from their saddle bags and saying, “Are we too late? We came to see the baby, too!”
Today, January 6, is Epiphany, the Christian holy day that celebrates the visitation of the Wise Men to the Christ child. It comes after the twelve days of Christmas, representing the time it would have taken for them to travel from the East after sighting the star that rose at the birth of Christ. But there are other traditions about the length of their journey in different parts of the church, from a couple of months to even a couple of years.
So I wonder if Mary and Joseph reacted the same way to the Wise Men’s arrival that many of us are tempted to by this story: with a sense of appreciation but also resignation, saying inwardly, “this is lovely and all, but honestly, I’m just ready to move on.” Yes, of course, we need to honor these Wise Men who came from so far away to honor the birth of Christ, demonstrating how even though he was born as King of the Jews, his reign would encompass the Gentile world as well. They, of course, would have been a bit overwhelmed by the precious gifts that these wise men brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, though I must admit I enjoy the cartoon that seems to circulate every year now showing the subsequent arrival of “The Three Wiser Women,” offering the Holy Family fresh diapers, casseroles, and baby formula. But in any case, let’s thank them for the gifts and for coming, and wish them safe travels home, because that means we can finally get back to normal life.
What we often miss or gloss over, though, is a very different set of reactions in Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ. Bethlehem, as you might have noticed, was actually the second stop for the Wise Men. They went first to Jerusalem, which would have made sense. Bethlehem is only a few miles away from Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is the city of the kings of Israel, while Bethlehem was a largely forgotten village that hadn’t mattered since King David came from there. If you were looking for a king of the Jews in the land of Judea, you would look in Jerusalem, especially since the star seemed to be leading them there. And, of course, they found one there: King Herod. It’s tempting to view the Wise Men, paradoxically, as fools for waltzing up to Herod and informing him that the king of the Jews had been born. Since he, Herod, was already King of the Jews, seems like any reasonable person would realize that it’s unlikely he would take this news well. But perhaps they simply assumed that the child was Herod’s own son, and were as surprised as anybody when Herod and “all of Jerusalem” responded with confusion and panic.
But panic they do, and they should. For one thing, Herod was hardly a secure king. He was a vassal of the Roman Emperor, and owed his power almost solely to Rome. It was Rome that had named him “king of Judea,” and he had no real claim to the throne himself. And even that had a history of being shaky; Herod had backed Mark Antony in his power struggle for control of the Empire with Octavius, who won and became known as Caesar Augustus. Herod spent a lot of time convincing Augustus that he could be counted on as a dependable client of Rome, but that in turn alienated many Jews, who felt that he was betraying their values and traditions by spreading foreign practices in Judea. So while no king wants to hear about the birth of a potential rival for the throne, Herod was particularly insecure and had reason to fear someone whose birth as king was heralded in the heavens enough to bring Wise Men from the East.
And those men would have probably been terrifying to him in themselves. The Greek word in the Biblical text call them “magi,” which often gets translated as “wise men,” but actually comes from a Persian word that refers to Zoroastrian priests. Those priests were renowned for practicing astrology as a form of science, not magic, despite the sound of the title. So these men arrived as scientific experts having read the signs written in the heavens, which was very, very bad for Herod; and they came from Persia, which was the only real geopolitical adversary for Rome at the time, which was even worse.
No wonder he reacts with panic. He turns to his Jewish religious advisers and asks for the prophesied birthplace of the Messiah, the Anointed One of God who would be sent to redeem and lead Israel, and they tell him: Bethlehem. So he tricks the Magi into going to Jerusalem, finding the child, and then returning to tell him the location, “so that he may also go and pay him homage.” Now, if there’s one thing that is without a shadow of doubt in this story, it’s that Herod was not about to go pay homage to someone else being called the “king of the Jews.” And if you read on, that becomes especially clear. Our passage today ends with the note that the Magi don’t return to tell him where Jesus is; they are warned in a dream not to, and they go home by another route. But what happens next is that Joseph is warned to get his family out of the country and seek asylum in Egypt, because Herod then massacres every child under the age of two in and around Bethlehem, just to be sure. It is a horrifying but all-too-believable story; because Herod is determined to return to his version of normal life after the Magi have visited, and slaughtering a couple dozen children (that’s probably about how many there would have been at the time in a town like Bethlehem) is just another day’s work maintaining his kingship, which to him was the same thing as maintaining the kingdom.
Herod is right to see the birth of Jesus as a threat to his reign, and it’s important to remember that the threat of Christmas is actually one of its most important attributes. The so-called “Christmas spirit” that we celebrate and seek to embody on at least some level every year is both lovely and limited. The real significance of Christmas is not a feeling that people share but the incarnation of God’s grace and love and faithfulness, of God’s very being, in Jesus Christ, which people witness and respond to. And that reminds us that God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ is not simply a joyful, beautiful event to be celebrated once a year. It is more than a wistful hope for peace on earth; more than a reason for temporary truces between soldiers and fleeting generosity from people in the streets. God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ is a direct challenge and threat to all the incarnations of fear and hatred and lust for power that want to run the world, that want to convince us that on earth, poverty and oppression and hatred and greed and selfishness are simply normal life; they are the way things are. And there’s just enough truth in their message to be deceiving: we are living in a world that often sees God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, reconciliation, and peace that Christ came to establish as a threat to be resisted rather than a blessing to be embraced.
But the threat of Christmas is a blessing for those who are able to hear the good news in God’s promise that things will never return to normal after the birth of Christ; that the birth of Christ is a seismic event that shakes the foundations of the earth and all those who try to claim it for themselves until finally their palaces and towers come crashing down. And God will never move on from that, but only move forward into it. And we get to be a part of that, get to receive and share the challenge and blessing of a gloriously abnormal life in Christ, until Christ finally comes again and makes that abundant life of grace and peace “normal” for all creation. So as we move away from the Christmas season, let us take the Christmas promise with us: that neither we nor the world will ever be the same again.