One of the images I came across in the last couple weeks shows the three wise men riding their camels, guided by the star in the sky, each holding a gift in their arms. The gifts are labeled mental health funding, sensible gun laws, and safe schools.
In the January issue of Sojourners magazine (page 48), Episcopal priest Martin Smith notes that for Epiphany he likes to turn to a medieval compendium of lore about the church’s saints and feast days called the Golden Legend. It’s full of wonderful and sometimes strange legends which include any number of creative alternative meanings to stories of scripture. Smith notes that for Epiphany, the Golden Legend catalogues six different interpretations of the meaning of the gold, frankincense and myrrh offered by the magi. One of those interpretations was taken and used in the Christmas carol “We Three Kings.” After the well-known first verse, each king has his own verse and sings about the symbolism behind his gift. Gold is a gift for a king; frankincense represents worship and praise of a deity; and myrrh, commonly used in burial rites, anticipates Jesus’ death on behalf of all humanity.
But this is just one of six legends in the Golden Legend on the topic. Smith names one other that he is especially drawn to, given by St. Bernard. It goes like this: “For they offered to Mary, the mother of the child, gold for to relieve her poverty, incense against the stench of the stable and evil air, myrrh for to comfort the tender members of the child and to put away vermin.” The way St. Bernard sees it, these gifts have a very practical purpose, for a poor family with an at-risk child, and they will be put to immediate use. Through the visit of the magi, Jesus, the Son of God, is on the receiving end of foreign aid, in form of cash, fumigation, and medication. Today that might look like a mosquito net for the child, and a micro-loan for the parents.
That the gifts of the magi might be practical offerings for real problems is a refreshing way to understand this story and helps us avoid the powerful tendency to over-sentimentalize it. Baby Jesus has a rash because his arm keeps rubbing against the dirty flea-ridden manger. Thank God the wise men brought some myrrh for Mary to rub on his skin. Another school shooting elevates fear in parents and kids. Thank God wise women and men are addressing this from multiple angles.
Generally speaking, Epiphany is a celebration of light. Thus the flood of lights set up in the sanctuary. The readings are the same each year: They include the visit of the magi, and those words from Isaiah chapter 60: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The significance of the magi story is not only that they are guided by the light of the star, but that these are the first foreigners, the first non-Jews, to encounter Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of the hopes of the descendants of Abraham, but the light which he brings is not for any one particular tribe or religion. The light is for all nations, and these wise ones are the first to recognize this, and be drawn in. John’s gospel says, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Light is such a primal symbol of hope and life that it doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation. It’s either there or it’s not. One of the things I’ll remember about our trip to Kansas this year was one of the first days we were at Abbie’s parents’ home. They had set out a full nativity scene on a table with about 20 different figures. Beside the nativity scene was one of those electric light bulb candles. While we were sitting around talking, Lily wandered over to the nativity scene and, one by one, started taking each of the figures and touching them to the light bulb. Without any words spoken, shepherds, angels, magi, and various domestic animals each received their scrape of light before being carefully put back in place, freshly enlightened by the fake plastic candle. I can’t remember a situation when she would have seen something quite like this happen, so it must have come out of her own sense of what needs to happen at a scene like that. Christ has been born, and everyone gets a piece of the light.
While this does provide one more thing to file away in the memory books under “cute things my kids have done,” and does provide one more temptation to over-sentimentalize this whole thing, the biblical story behind the magi’s visit gives us very little opportunity for sentimentality. The reason the light shines in the darkness is because the darkness is so prevalent and pervasive.
The magi are courageous and faithful in their travels, but these foreigners from the east seem out of place and unfamiliar with the local politics of Roman occupied Palestine. They come to Jerusalem asking if anyone can help them find the one born “King of the Jews,” most likely unaware that the current King Herod had received that title for himself over 30 years before. Herod catches wind of this and naturally has some interest in the whole affair. To say that he was a paranoid, power-hungry King would be an understatement. Herod had already murdered his own sons, one of his wives, and countless others he saw as threats to his power. With word from his religious advisors that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod buddies up to the wise men and tells them in language perfectly calculated to appeal to their sense of piety: “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” They set out at Herod’s command. These well-intentioned, gift-bearing star-watchers have unknowingly become pawns in Herod’s quest to maintain power at all costs.
The foreigners meet the Christ child, pay him homage, and offer their treasures. Gifts, generously given, to a child not of their own people. And then, because of a warning from a dream they have, they disobey Herod, and, in the words of that wonderful biblical phrase, they returned home “by another road.” This act in itself, that they selected to protect the welfare of a child despite the decree of a king to do otherwise, is enough for them to be known as wise men.
If this were the end of the story, we would have enough: gifts from afar for a family in poverty, light spreading to all the nations of the world, a cautionary tale about worship and power, and listening to the voices of dreams above the voice of Herod.
But there’s more, and it’s not pretty. The light shines in the darkness, and when the darkness gets tricked, it comes back with a vengeance.
From places like sub-Saharan Africa where mosquito nets and micro-loans are lifelines to health and economic stability, we are taken to a scenario that lines up with all the places in the world where people become refugees because of political unrest: Iraq, Columbia, Congo, Syria. Because of the wrath of Herod, who has discovered that he has been duped by the magi, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, the Holy Family, become refugees, fleeing for their life. Again it is the voice of a dream, a message from an angel of the Lord, that gives guidance. Any family in these current places of conflict fortunate enough to have a warning from an angel in the middle of the night would receive a similar kind of message: “Get up, take the child and get out here. They’re coming.”
As of December 30th, 568,958 Syrians had registered with the United Nations refugee agency because of the current violence in their country, 20% under the age of 4, displaced from their home country, taking temporary shelter in the surrounding nations. In a similar way, Mary and Joseph take their child under the cover of darkness, and head south, to Egypt. Ironically, the same nation that enslaved their ancestors, the archetypal enemy of the children of Israel, becomes a safe-haven. In a foreign land, away from the familiarity of home, the Holy Family takes refuge from murderous violence, and waits for better days. Good thing they have some gold from the magi to get by.
And then the scene shifts again, this time much closer to home for us. In an incredibly sobering passage that rarely gets included in the Christmas story, Matthew narrates: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
This story is known in church tradition as “the slaughter of the innocents,” a title free of euphemism. It evokes the similar action taken by Pharaoh when he believed that the Israelites were multiplying too fast and would soon become a threat to political stability in Egypt. At that time, baby Moses was saved from the slaughter, and later delivered his people from the slavery of Egypt. Now it is baby Jesus who is spared and acts as the new Moses who delivers all of humanity from whatever forces may be enslaving them.
The picture we might have in our minds here is the one from Newtown, Connecticut and Sandy Hook elementary. Herod has morphed into a combination of dark forces and factors: mental health problems, widespread accessibility of assault weapons, and a culture of violence. The innocent children are still innocent children.
Here the voices of warning angels are replaced with the voice of Rachel, matriarch of Israel, beloved wife of Jacob, weeping for her children, who are no more.
Of course, these aren’t technically Rachel’s children. According to Genesis, Rachel and Jacob had two children together, Joseph and Benjamin. Benjamin, and two of Joseph’s children, Ephraim and Menasseh, became three of the twelve tribes of Israel. It was centuries later, when the descendants of all of these tribes had been conquered and carried away into exile, first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, that the prophet Jeremiah imagined the pain and loss of his people in this way: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (Jer. 31:15) Across the centuries, across the generations, Rachel weeps for the children of other mothers, these children who are also her children. Over half a millennium after Jeremiah, Matthew evokes that same voice, that same wailing from the archetypal mother: Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted. This time it is the children of the small town of Bethlehem who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, who fall under the mad rage of a megalomaniac king. The Christmas to Epiphany story contains the two extremes of motherly emotion: Mary’s delight of bringing her child into the world is matched with the wailing of Rachel and the women whose children are no more.
Epiphany is the season of light. The point isn’t that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness goes away. The point is that the darkness continues to persist, from Pharoah, to Herod, to present day. The light is either there, or it’s not. The good news of epiphany is that the light is indeed there, is indeed among us, and the darkness has not overcome it. The humanity of God, present in Jesus, present in us, touches the darkest, most agonizing realities of our world. In Christ, God enters the darkness, and light scrapes up against everyone willing to behold its presence.
Rachel weeps for the children of other mothers. The magi bring gifts to a child not their own. The child grows up, and redefines the meaning of family. Teaches us that we are all beloved children of God, members of one human family, and that we can treat each other accordingly. Arise, shine, for your light has come. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Thanks be to God.