In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “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.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Happy New Year! It’s almost over—this season of readying and wrapping, of decking the halls and visiting with friends and family, of over-running and over-eating and over-spending. If you’re like me, you love all there is about Advent and Christmas but when it’s time for it to be over, you’re ready. You’re ready to go back to normalcy, back to your usual schedule. You’re ready to go back to your life.
When I was little, we had a manger scene that sat on the entry table of our home during the Advent and Christmas season. I think that it was probably my favorite decoration. Putting it out meant that Christmas was here. And during the season, my brother and I would continually move it around and change the story a bit. Sometimes the Mary and Joseph were in the stable and other times they were carefully but precariously placed on the roof. Sometimes the Shepherds were herding the camel and the Wisemen were traveling with a sheep or an angel. And sometimes the baby was in the manger and other times the character would show up in various other places throughout the house. But, always, at the end of the season, it was sad to me to put the manger scene away, to rewrap all the characters in their tissue paper that they wore for most of the year, put away the baby, and close the box. It was over. It was time to go back. Now is the time. What now? What do we do after it all ends? The truth is, “after” is when it begins, “after” is when it becomes real, and “after” is the whole reason we do this at all.
In the Gospel text for this Sunday, we find the last (and maybe the main!) question of Advent. It comes not at Christmas Eve in the midst of the candlelight and carols but after. And, believe it or not, it’s not asked by those who had been waiting and hoping for it to happen. It is asked by some who knew nothing of its happening before. All they knew was what followed, what came after. But they believe that the star (or, for some, an unusual conjunction of heavenly bodies that produces an especially bright light) marks the birth of a special child destined to be a king. They ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
We all know the story of the Wise Ones from the East (Wisemen, or Magi, or Kings, or Zoroastrian followers, or whoever they were numbered in three or however many tradition holds). They came at the request of King Herod. They came supposedly to “pay homage”, but we know that that was not the case. The truth is, Herod had heard that there was a new king in town and for him that was one king too many. So, “paying homage” was only a precursory mission leading up to the demise of this new competing ruler. We are told that they brought gifts, gifts fit for a king. And then the passage tells us that, heeding a warning in a dream, these wise and learned (and probably powerful) members of the court of Herod, left Bethlehem and returned to their own country, a long and difficult journey through the Middle Eastern desert. Rather than returning to their comfortable lives and their secure and powerful places in the court of Herod, they left and went a different way. They knew they had to go back to life. But it didn’t have to be the same. So they slip away into the night. Herod is furious. He has been duped. So he issues an order that all the children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem should be killed. The truth is that Jesus comes into the world as it actually is, not as we wish it to be. Evil and greed are real and the ways of the world can and do crush life.
This passage moves the story beyond the quiet safety of the manger. We realize that the manger is actually placed in the midst of real life, with sometimes dark and foreboding forces and those who sometimes get it wrong. The primary characters are, of course, God and these visitors, these foreign Gentiles who did not even worship in the ways of the Jewish faith. They were powerful, intelligent, wealthy, and were accustomed to using their intellect and their logic to understand things. You know, they were a lot like us. But they found that the presence of the Divine in one’s life is not understood in the way that we understand a math equation. It is understood by becoming it.
Maybe that’s the point about Christmas that we’ve missed. Maybe it’s not just about the nativity scene. Maybe it’s more about what comes after. We often profess that Jesus came to change the world. But that really didn’t happen. Does that mean that this whole Holy Birth was a failure, just some sort of pretty, romantic story in the midst of our sometimes chaotic life? Maybe Jesus didn’t intend to change the world at all; maybe Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us, came into this world to change us. Maybe, then, there IS a new normal. It has to do with what we do after. It has to do with how we choose to go back to our lives. Do we just pick up where we left off? Or do we, like those wise men choose to go home by another way? The point of the story is actually what comes after. And that, my friend, is where you come in.
So, the baby cannot just be put away in the manger scene box. The Incarnation of God happens over and over and over again. Christmas day happens each and every time that we see God in each other, that we see the sacred in this world, and that we see that we have the Divine all over us. We cannot go back to life as it was. It doesn’t exist. There is indeed a new normal that comes after all of the celebrations and after all of the birthing. So, in these days after Christmas as you put the decorations away for another year, look around at your new normal. Look around at what comes after. What are you called to do? How have you changed? What other way will you travel home?
When the star in the sky is gone, When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks, The Work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner,
To teach the nations, To bring Christ to all, To make music in the heart.
(Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas”)
Grace and Peace,