So what do you think? Is this story of the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus a happy story or not? We tend to position it as a happy story, and there are good reasons for that. It’s the story of God reaching out to foreigners in a far off land, of astrologers who observe a new star at its rising and undertake a long and difficult journey to pay homage to the one sent by God, the new king, the one we will come to understand as the very incarnation of God. Despite the challenges, despite obstacles, these wise ones persist in their journey and eventually, with the star to guide them, they arrive at the place where the child was, and they are overwhelmed with joy. And don’t we all long to be overwhelmed with joy?
And yet, this overwhelming joy is but a moment in the midst of fear and violence. When the magi arrive in Jerusalem to ask about the child who has been born king of the Jews, when Herod hears this, he’s frightened, and not just Herod, but all of Jerusalem with him. I get why Herod was frightened. As a king who has battled hard and schemed ruthlessly to maintain his position in a violent and unstable world, any mention of a new king would be perceived as a threat. But why would all of Jerusalem be frightened with him? Well, sadly, it’s because this King Herod has a track record. When he gets frightened, he gets violent. He neutralizes threats. He jails opponents. He sends out death squads to kill people. All Jerusalem is frightened, and they are right to be afraid.
Last Sunday when we read about the presentation of Jesus in the temple, Simeon the priest signalled to us that the response to this child would not be all rainbows and unicorns. The dark side of the response to Jesus was prophesied by Simeon in the chilling words delivered to his mother Mary: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Last week we talked about why Jesus would be opposed.
This week, the reality of that opposition hits home in the gospel of Matthew. This is a dark story – yes, there’s a moment of overwhelming joy, but that joy happens in the midst of power struggles, conflict, fear and violence. “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise ones, he was infuriated, and he gave orders to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem.”
Overwhelming joy. Fear and violence. Both are present in today’s gospel, in this story of the magi that we tell every year at Epiphany. There is a tension here. Will violence overwhelm joy? Often it looks like it will. We live in that tension. I think that Matthew is giving us here a realistic and accurate picture of our world.
We live in a world in which we experience great joy and great fear. Just this week my phone rang, and it was my daughter on Facetime calling to announce that she’d just been accepted for her dream job this summer. That was a moment of great joy. And yet, this same week I read in the news that the President of North Korea had proclaimed in his new year’s message that his nuclear weapons could now strike anywhere in North America. To which the US President responded that he had a bigger and more powerful nuclear button at his disposal. Great joy. Great fear. Light and darkness.
The story of the wise ones is a story of extremes. The epic journey of the magi to find the child culminates in joy and adoration. The tragic response of King Herod explodes into rage, violence and the wailing of grief-stricken mothers. Thankfully, most of our lives are not lived in such extremes. But all of us, in one way or another, live this tension, longing for light, threatened by the dark. Indeed, this tension not only surrounds us, but also exists within us, in the uneasy co-existence of the light and the dark in our own lives.
Why does Matthew paint this picture for us so soon in the life of Jesus? I think he wants to remind us that this is what our world is like. I think he wants to foreshadow the conflict that will emerge in response to the adult Jesus. But I also think that he wants us to know that this is why Jesus came into the world. This is why the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus came to be the light that shines in the darkness, to give us moments of joy, yes, but also to experience the darkness in all its fury and yet to prevail against it. To defeat the darkness that surrounds us and to redeem the darkness within us. To show us in as concrete and historical and human a way possible that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
We need that light. As people who live in the tension between the dark and the light, we need to know that thanks to what God has done in Jesus, it is the light that will prevail. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, even the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear, for God is with me. Herod’s opposition to the God-child will not prevail. The joy that the magi experience when they see the child is not naïve, nor is it in vain. It is rather a moment of clarity in a conflicted and confusing world, a moment of recognition that God truly is with us, and that changes everything. Indeed, you might call that moment of recognition an epiphany.
May you also, even in the midst of the tensions and fears of this world, know that God is with us, and when you experience that epiphany, may you too be overwhelmed with joy.
Homily: Epiphany, Jan 7 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Is 60.1-6; Ps 72, Eph 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12
Image by FarTripper (flickr.com) Creative Commons