The epiphany season is the hinge point of a new year, when things can come into new focus. It is one more gift of the season; a chance to look back and look forward.
Matthew does this: he starts his account of Jesus’ life with a look back at Jesus’ ancestors, from Abraham through to Jesus’ father, Joseph. Matthew names 42 generations, in three sets of 14; “Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob…Zerubbabel begat Abiud…” all the way to “Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary.” Matthew mentions the Babylonian captivity four times as he frames the latter ancestors experiences.
Remarkably, some of those named are women – women all known for some, shall we say, non-traditional sexual practice or activity. Perhaps this is to reassure the readers that Joseph’s visit from the angel, telling him to marry his sweetheart Mary, even if she is inexplicably pregnant – is right in line with the historical lineage.
These lists which can seem unnecessary and boring, remind us that looking back can ground us in who are and where we come from. Looking back can help us frame what we are waiting for. Seeing that long lineage with familiar, and not so familiar, names helps us see that any one of us can become part of God’s plan for entrance into the world. “God with us,” Holiness incarnate, threads through a motley heritage and yet becomes a model for salvation, an archetype for new ways to live out an old faith. “God with us” is a messy business and yet in the mess, lives can change toward goodness and beauty.
That is the sermon I was working on. And then on Friday we learned that the president of the United States ordered a drone strike on the Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani as he approached the Baghdad airport. With Soleimani’s death, (and the death of 9 others, Matthew 2 takes on a new urgency with age-old relevancy.
Today, on Epiphany Sunday, we celebrate that this One we call “God with us” not only came among us but was visited by wise ones from the East. Conflating Psalm 72 with Matthew 2 we find three kings, with three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. (This is the forward looking part that Matthew is working on – frankincense and myrrh are used to preserve bodies at death, foreshadowing what is to come for Jesus.) Matthew doesn’t say explicitly where these wise ones come from but tradition has it that they were Persian astrologers, perhaps Zoroastrian. Our treasured Christmas story is entwined with Iran, with the people of Iran. Prince of Peace indeed.
These visitors from the East do not just appear out of nowhere. For Matthew, the Persian visitors also have a place in the list of begats. Remember how Matthew mentions the Babylonian captivity four times as the ancestors are enumerated? Babylon, a place of captivity and devastation for the Jews, was later conquered by Persia. They are all tied together, the Jews, the Babylonians, the Persians. And now thousands of years later, as spiritual descendants, or cultural descendants – we are still connected, some of us still trying to defeat and conquer each other.
In Matthew’s version of the story, it is the birth of this baby that unites these long time enemies against the new villain, Herod. Through the birth of Jesus, these few Jews and these few Persians, find peace. The infant disarms and refocuses them all in a way that opens their hearts. That is the way of babies. We become protectors of the bawling, helpless, wee things. As the hymn we sang says –
O the magnitude of meekness!
(Worth from worth immortal sprung;)
O the strength of infant weakness,
(if eternal is so young!)
(text by Christopher Smart, HWB 200)
It seems the magi are strengthened by their encounter with such weakness. Though they have orders from strongman Herod, the mysticism of a dream and the memory of their experience with the baby give them courage to go against Herod, to take a new path on the way back home.
I wonder how the Magi are changed by their meeting with the baby and family. Are they given new understanding of how all babies are sacred and can bring peace? When they return home, will they tell a new story about the Jews? Do they call this young one the Prince of Peace?
I wonder how Mary and Joseph are changed by their encounter with these grand, foreign visitors. Do Joseph and Mary have new appreciation for the depth of commitment and spirituality that the magi have? Perhaps this coming together of long time adversaries is part of what we read in Ephesians when the author writes – “(The) mystery is that the Gentiles are heirs, as are we; members of the Body, as are we; and partakers of the promise of Jesus the Messiah through the Good News, as are we.”
Lest we get all misty-eyed at the ways a baby can unite even enemies, it is important to remember that not everyone is so open hearted. Herod is more addicted to his power and position than any care and protection he might give a baby or young child. When Herod takes a look back, he does not see generations of faithful Jews, he sees only the threat of an ancient prophecy that tilts away from him and toward Judah.
He is not awed or curious. He does not even poke his head out of the palace to verify there is a guiding star. He has people to do that for him. Herod is so far removed from the beauty of the world, that power and prestige are all he can see. When he is double-crossed, disobeyed, by the magi, not even babies and toddlers are safe from his wrath, especially not babies and toddlers.
Unfortunately, this is an ancient story made ever new. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with the sounds of mothers weeping, the voices of Ramah, in their ears. Yet today children and parents flee their home countries from those who threaten violence. When desperate families reach the borders of this “Christian” country, they are not received as Mary and Joseph. They are turned away, or caged, or separated. The voices of Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children, these voices are unceasing.
We might also wonder about the children in Babylon and Persia, Iraq and Iran, who have for decades endured violence and hunger, whose parents have lived in fear and endured trauma after trauma of unending wars. Are these not also voices of Ramah, mothers and fathers trying to protect their children, weeping for their children?
The Herods of this world are ever present.
The weeping voices of Ramah still weep.
Where are the magi who seek to honor the children outside their own borders, outside their own tradition? Who are the Magi that humble themselves in the face of poverty and a culture unknown to them? Where do we look today for that young Prince (or Princess) of Peace?
What if we, who say we seek peace, what if we are called not just to receive visitors from afar but to become those who risk travel to an unknown place guided only by a distant star? What would it mean for us to risk a trek to Iran, believing there are holy families there who deserve honor?
More practically, and more environmentally sustainable, in our multicultural and international city, we need only take a trip a few miles to meet families from other countries, who are living in poverty’s embrace, bringing new life into the world. Ride the bus to Langley Park or shop at the local MegaMart. That might be all it takes to meet an unknown holy family, to honor the Prince of Peace here in Prince George’s County – Though the Magi might tell us that without the arduous journey it is not as easy to humble yourself; some kind of risk is probably involved if we want to bow and see God in unfamiliar cultures and customs.
Surely there is a star above Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda where Rosa and her family have been in safe sanctuary for over a year. Rosa and her children, Maria, Juan Pablo and John, are a holy family seeking peace. As they seek peace, they bring peace and hope to others – to those who are willing to accompany and aide them.
We look back and tell this story of Jesus’ birth, of the Magi, to remind ourselves and recommit ourselves to seeking the Prince of Peace. We repeat the story, risking the unbelievable belief that someday in the future, Babylon and Persia and Bethlehem, Iraq, Iran and Israel, can live together in peace.
If that is the hopeful vision we hold, then we will find ourselves in the God With Us lineage. It may feel strange to add our names, as messed up and unconventional as we may be, to the list of begats. It will take humility to believe in the strength of weakness, the magnitude of meekness, the power of love. It will take commitment to live it out, practicing with our families, our friends and neighbors, right here at church, – and with those from afar.
It may even mean taking the risk to be the ones from afar, to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. We will make mistakes as we humble ourselves. We may have to stop for directions, ask questions. We may get lost, wandering in unknown, dangerous territory. We may also find our way toward grace, toward healing, toward the mystery of Christa, where longtime enemies find peace – in a helpless, impoverished baby, the Prince of Peace.