As the Christmas season draws to a close for another year, and we sing carols that weave together the birth stories, I feel that preacherly responsibility to pick apart and untangle the two very different gospel stories of Jesus birth. During advent and on Christmas Eve we heard the story from Luke. It comes (sort of) from Mary’s point of view: Mary has an angel visitation, Mary sings her revolutionary song to Elizabeth. After the birth and the visit from the shepherds – who have heir own angel visitors, Mary ponders all these things in her heart. I love how Luke shows us the strength of the women: Mary, Elizabeth, the elder prophet Anna in the temple.
Today we hear the story from Matthew’s gospel; it has more of a slant toward Joseph. In Matthew’s origin story Joseph has the dreams and angel visits, and though the biological origins of Jesus are, shall we say “fuzzy,” the genealogy in Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage. Matthew’s version of the birth brings a very different set of visitors to the baby. There are no shepherds coming straight out of the fields. Instead we have wise ones coming from a different land and different culture, following a star and their own dreams.
This wealthy, non-Jewish, caravan travels quite a long distance, following a star in search of what they believe to be royalty. The end of their travels seem to lead them to the governmental palace of King Herod. Herod knows nothing of this new Jewish king and must consult a wide array of counselors for their input. It terrifies Herod, and “all Jerusalem,” to think that someone, even a baby, might challenge his tenuous leadership in this remote area far from the center of the Roman empire. As he sends the travelers on their way with his good wishes, Herod has his own (sinister) motives for wanting to hear more about this so-called Jewish king.
In Matthew’s telling, the family is not crowded out of the inn, birthing the baby in a barn (or a cave.) The wise ones find Mary and the child (not a baby) at a house; the door is opened and the foreigners walk right in, bearing gifts. (Maybe Joseph is at work that day, he doesn’t appear in this scene.)
The strange gifts are traditionally understood to foreshadow events in Jesus’ life. The gold helps support the family who will soon flee to Egypt to save the young Jesus from the wrath of Herod. The frankincense and myrrh are to preserve Jesus’ body in death. This unusual gift basket promotes life and acknowledges death – at the same time.
Matthew’s story has become common and familiar. So how do we find new meaning or perhaps find our place in this story? Here in DC, we are located more at the center of power, in “Rome,” rather than in the backwaters of Jerusalem or Bethlehem, Goshen or Carbondale, Colorado. We did have opportunity to view that unusual conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn a few weeks back, that sort of resembles a guiding star. We have had an opportunity to generously share our own treasure through special offerings to Life After Release.
Our advent theme was anticipating | incarnating. Christmas has come, so the anticipating must be over. Does that mean the incarnating is also finished? Or has it just begun? I am growing to believe that it is always the season of incarnating – though it is hard to keep that idea in front of oneself all the time. Thankfully, we come round to it each December. As the nights get longer and we burrow in for winter we are reminded that God is still among us, we remember that the Word becomes flesh. As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes, “Matter is – and has always been – the hiding place of the Spirit, forever offering itself to be discovered anew.”
In this season, we have been looking for the hiding place of the Spirit, singing that we see the love of God and light of Christ in each other – word become flesh. How far does that stretch? Can we see the love of God in travelers from another country when they knock on our door? Can the travelers see the love of God in us? Of course in these pandemic days the travelers and the knock on the door are all metaphorical. Maybe we need to ask: Can we see the love of God in our families with whom we have been locked in for so many months?
It is one thing to see the love of God in people we know, it is another to see and show the love of God to strangers when they come knocking, even if they do bring gifts. I am grateful for the ways that we saw and experienced the love of God through the guest preachers who joined us during Advent. Qiana, Jay, Donna and AnaYelsi were strangers to most of us. Through your hospitality, they experienced the light of Christ in all of us as well. Thank you for incarnating the practice of hospitality even in this time when it is hard to know what welcome looks like. How else have you seen the love of God, word made flesh, during this season? I hope you will share with us in the conversation time the incarnating you are observing and experiencing.
But what about those who look more like Herod, with concern only for themselves and preserving their own power? How do we, can we even, see the love of God in them? Is the Spirit hiding even amongst Herod’s soldiers who bring violence and the destruction of families? How can we, dare we, see the love of God in the midst of such violence? This is a very live question in the coming week – and possibly in the coming years if certain news articles are to be believed.
Last month the traveling, white supremacist, misogynist, Proud Boys came to town and tore down Black Lives Matter signs on four churches, even burned and stomped on the BLM sign from a historic African American church. The Proud Boys and many other groups are set to be in the city on Wednesday as Congress authenticates the electoral college votes. All indications are that many in these groups will bring with them weapons and a thirst for violence.
The pastor at Luther Place, one of the churches that was targeted in December, is asking clergy to come pray and be a presence on January 6, Epiphany, when we remember the star guiding the travelers to the Christ child. We will be at the church not to protect the reinstalled Black Lives Matter sign from the travelers but to pray and be a visible presence of the Love of God.
What do we do when the travelers that come to the city on Epiphany seem more like the soldiers of Herod than magi? How do we see anything of God in them when the “gifts” they bring promote fear and violence, not love and joy? It is challenge enough to be a calm and loving presence in the face of anger and violence. Even harder is seeing the Spirit hiding in these travelers from afar.
Perhaps in this situation we remember that important truth that therapists repeat over and over – “you can’t control anyone but yourself, you can’t change anyone but yourself.” Herod tried. He tried to get the magi to return to him, and tell him about the “baby king.” But the magi had their own experiences, their own dreams and “returned home by another way.”
One thing for sure, it is hard to make anyone else aware of the love of God until we find it within ourselves. We can’t force the love of God to come out of hiding. When we are grounded in that love, we can offer that love to others and maybe they will see that love is more powerful than fear.
Somehow this reminds me of the words of Jesus. “This bread is my body, given for you,” my body full of love, a hiding place for spirit.
Can you hear Jesus, saying this to the disciples who struggle to understand him and his world view, saying even to Judas and Peter, “I wish that you would know love, understand love but perhaps you are not ready to receive it. Eat this bread instead. Drink this cup anyway. This is my love – tangible, tactile. Try to remember and learn.”
So let us celebrate communion today.
Let us try to remember and learn
that love is tactile and tangible.
Even though we can’t
process up the aisle together,
even though we can’t receive bread
from another church member,
let us remember love incarnate,
with bread, with the cup.
Friends, this is the season
when we notice and remember
that “Matter is and has always been
the hiding place for Spirit,
forever offering itself
to be discovered anew.” (R Rohr)
For weeks we have waited and anticipated,
watching for God to come among us,
be present with us, incarnate.
Now, here is one way,
in this very ordinary bread,
different in each household.
The Holy One is somehow here,
hiding and waiting to be discovered.
This bread is a treasure in its ordinariness.
It can feed us, fill us, free us –
to grow, to understand, to love.
This juice, perhaps only a small swallow,
connects us and opens connections with others
across the congregation and around the globe.
What a gift.
Let us pray the prayer that Jesus taught:
Our father/mother in heaven.
Hallowed be your name.
Your kindom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread
and forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kindom,
the power and the glory, now and forever. AMEN
As he ate with his friends,
Our Blessed brother Jesus,
bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh,
took bread, gave thanks and broke it saying,
“This is my body which is for you.
Eat this to remember me.”
In the same way, as he shared
drink with his friends,
Jesus took the cup saying,
“This is the cup of the new covenant.
Whenever you drink it, remember me.”
This is the table, not of the church,
but of our God,
You have made it ready, you who love God
And you who want to love God more.
So, take and eat,
you who have much faith
and you who have little,
You who have shared the table often
and you who have not for a long time,
You who have tried to follow
and you who have failed.
Eat and drink, not because
it is I who invite you;
It is our God,
the mysterious and incarnate,
who meets us here
with open arms of welcome and love.
As we eat this bread and drink this cup
may we remember that
“matter is – and has always been –
the hiding place for Spirit,
forever offering itself to be discovered anew.”
Let us eat this bread of life.
Lets drink this cup of joy.