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Long before the church designated December 25th as the Feast of the Nativity, or Christmas, people used to have festivals at the time of the winter solstice. These ancient celebrations were meant to dispel the darkness of encroaching winter, if only temporarily. We live in a world of central heating, electric lights, and snow removal equipment, so it’s easy for us to forget the threat that winter once presented. In the colder years, there was the actual possibility of starvation and death. (In some parts of the world today, and for the poor, winter still presents these dangers.) At a minimum, winter usually meant an extended period of isolation from one’s fellow human beings, as people hunkered down against the cold, ice and darkness. Winter was a time of struggle and a reminder of mortality.
I think of this when I read the Epiphany story. On Epiphany we read the “adults only” version of the Christian nativity story. There’s a reason we always hear Luke rather than Matthew on Christmas Eve: Matthew’s story is much darker. Matthew shows us the light of Christ against the dark background of the world into which this light came. There is a shadow side to the story of the bright Nativity star; the beautiful Epiphany story is also a winter’s tale, ringed with threat and danger.
Of all the stories in the Gospels, this may be the one that has been embellished the most. Over the centuries, the Christian imagination has transformed the mysterious visitors from the East into kings, three of them to be exact, even though Matthew says nothing about how many there were. They figure prominently in Christmas plays and pageants, in which they are given names and presented as maharajahs in opulent clothing and jeweled turbans, carrying with them all the exotic mysteries of the spice-scented East.
The truth is, we don’t know exactly who the magi were or where they came from. Once upon a time, they may have been astrologers, magicians or priests, but by the time of Jesus “magi” seems to have referred to a respected class of scholars who were versed in natural sciences, medicine, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. These men, probably not very young, had left their homes to make an arduous trip to Palestine to see the newborn baby hailed as king of the Jews. It must have been a journey of many weeks, over difficult terrain and in uncertain weather. Most likely, they would have been threatened by highwaymen and other desert bandits. They arrived in Jerusalem only to have their honest searching met by Herod's deception: “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may go and also pay him homage.” And these men, wise and learned and well-traveled as they are, are taken in. Only God’s intervention in the form of a dream prevents the magi from returning to Herod and telling him where to find the baby.
If the character of the magi has been embellished over the years, that of Herod has not been. Herod the Great, who was known as King of the Jews but was really a puppet of the Romans, was obsessed with displaying and protecting his own power. He was known as a “moody, cruel, sometimes violent” ruler, who imprisoned and executed his own sons to keep them from displacing him on the throne.
So the very first days of the life of Jesus of Nazareth are lived out against a background of terror. In the event the church calls the Massacre of the Innocents, Herod orders the murder of all the children under two in and around Bethlehem to prevent a certain one of them from growing up and usurping his kingship. This impending holocaust is swirling around the magis’ visit to the Light of the World.
The Epiphany story is a story of facing down the darkness, not with songs and revelry as the ancients did against the onslaught of winter, but with the knowledge that in Jesus Christ God has made clear God’s intention that the light that has come into the world will not be overcome (John 1:5).
The magi are those who follow the light that shines through this darkness. They follow because the place where this star leads holds the secret to living more truthfully, more lovingly and more humanly. The magi come to see someone whose life is already in danger, a portent of what is yet to come. Jesus has been born into a world that will misunderstand him, use him, betray him, and eventually kill him. The world of Herod will have its triumph for a time, as Herod’s spiritual successors all over the world have continued to do down through the ages. (A modern-day Herod who quickly comes to mind is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, whose brutal crackdown on threats to his power has killed or made refugees of thousands of children and their parents.)
I have pointed out the grimmer elements of the Epiphany story not to put a damper on whatever Christmas cheer you all may still be feeling – I hope you have been able to bring some of the joy of the season in here with you today. I say these things because I think it is only by facing the darkness, by seeing the persistence of serious evil in the world that we can connect with the deepest hope of the Christian faith. In Jesus Christ, God has given us a living hope with which to meet the darkness: hope that is based on the assurance we see in him that God’s intention for humanity is for love and not hate; for kindness and not cruelty; for life and not death.
Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, has pointed out that for the early church, the resurrection itself “was understood as a gift coming out of real and definitive darkness, loss and death, not [simply] a happy ending or a reversal of tragedy.” His point is that we don’t face down the darkness by denying it exists – if we do that, we make a mockery of the depths to which God has gone in acting for our salvation. Christians are to be people with their eyes wide open – “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” as Jesus says.
Cruel and careless people continue to work their will in the world, and all too often children are the victims. The Epiphany story is, in fact, a story of children: children who never get to grow up and children who do grow up to tell the truth about the Herods of this world. We live in a world in which the “perfect light” of truth and grace in Jesus Christ and the shadow of evil coexist. When we lit candles in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve, we were symbolizing these twin realities, while affirming our hope that human evil will not have the last word.
We show the substance of our hope by refusing to acquiesce to the darkness. We face down the darkness by following the truth of the Epiphany star, as the magi did, instead of the lies and half-truths of the Herods of the world, who live by fear rather than hope.
There is a hidden-camera reality show that has been on ABC since 2008. It’s called “What Would You Do?” and it records how people respond – or fail to respond – to blatant cruelty or injustice going on right before their eyes. The host, John Quinones, recruits actors and puts them in public places where they play out a drama that passersby can’t help noticing. In one episode, for example, a woman playing a shopper in the checkout line at a grocery store berates a Down syndrome man, also an actor, who is bagging her groceries. I’m happy to report that many people do respond: they intervene in the situation and call out the bad behavior and challenge its perpetrator, even at possible risk to themselves. It seems like a small thing: to stand up for the Down syndrome man, or the Muslim shopkeeper who is insulted and bullied by a customer, or the woman being loudly ridiculed by her husband about her weight. But every action like this is a small resistance movement against the Herods of this world, and a light against the darkness.
It is still Christmas and it is also winter. It is what the poet Auden calls “the Time Being,” the difficult in-between time in which we acknowledge that in Christ God’s new order has arrived, but the old order does not flee away as easily as we might wish. But those who have seen the Christ Child, like the magi with their precious gifts for a baby threatened with murder, are the treasurers of a wild hope that can never be completely vanquished. It is the unstoppable hope of those who remember a morning that dawned with unbelievable freshness, a morning when we woke up to find we were no longer alone, that God had crept in beside us.
We remember and we hope and we act on that hope. That is the light we hold against the darkness. In this Epiphany season and in the New Year ahead, may this light warm you and guide you and give you courage.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
January 5, 2020
 Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgment (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000), 136.