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January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, which follows the twelve days of Christmas. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles in the persons of the magi (Matthew 2). Matthew is the only evangelist who tells the story and he provides few details. I’m sure you know the story: Magi come from the east seeking the newly born king of the Jews; they don’t find him in Jerusalem; upon the advice of Jewish leaders (via Herod) they travel to Bethlehem; they find Jesus, worship him, and give him gifts; and they return home. Matthew provides some additional details, but not many, and the story raises as many questions as it answers.

Matthew says that the magi came “from the east”. Given that they are called magi and were engaged in watching the heavens for signs, it is reasonable to assume that they were from Persia, or perhaps Babylon. Neither of these places is Jewish territory so why would the magi be interested in the birth of a Jewish king? The answer may have its roots several centuries earlier when Israel and Judah were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Many Jews were taken into exile from Israel and Judah to Persia and Babylonia. The people living in the area were polytheists so when the Jews came along and spoke of the God of Israel, the people living in the area would have listened, believed in this new god, and added the god to their list of deities. They would not have accepted the view that the God of Israel was the only true God, but they would have believed in God’s existence and willingly learned about this new deity. Many Jews stayed in Persia even after they were given permission to return to Judah so the exchange of knowledge between the Jews and Persians probably continued for centuries.

Some of the magi of the land knew enough about Jewish scriptures to know that an important king was expected. These magi watched the skies for omens and when a certain “star” appeared they interpreted it as heralding the birth of the new Jewish king. They set out for Jerusalem to pay homage to this important person. When they arrived they learned that those in authority knew nothing about the birth of a new king.

King Herod (who was not a Jew) asked the chief priests and the scribes about the birthplace of the expected king. They told Herod that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah. When telling Herod this, they state, “so it has been written by the prophet.” This addendum is a formula to state that the message was accepted by the Jewish religious leaders as the word of God spoken through a prophet, and thus was certain. Upon receiving this information the magi continue their journey to Bethlehem. There they found the child, worshiped him, and gave gifts.

The magi knew enough of the scriptures to know the prophecy of the king’s birth but lacked the detailed information which would have guided them to Bethlehem. The chief priests and scribes knew to look for the king in Bethlehem but they didn’t accompany the magi or send a delegation to investigate. Why did the chief priests and scribes stay in Jerusalem after hearing the magi’s report of the star? The messiah was long awaited and was the hope of all Israel; his birth would be great news to his people.

I think the reason was hubris. The chief priests and the scribes studied the scriptures; they were the religious experts of God’s chosen people. Why would God reveal the messiah’s birth to pagan, polytheistic magi? It just wasn’t reasonable to their minds. They were the important people, the authorities among God’s chosen. They were sure that God would not send an announcement to anyone other than them. And they were wrong.

God chose to reveal the messiah’s birth to foreigners. God also revealed it to Jews who were not very important in the world’s (or the religious leaders’) eyes: Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Anna, and Simeon among others. There’s a lesson for us: God speaks to those to whom God wishes to speak. It is not our position in the world or church, our value in the eyes of others, or our self-evaluation which determines whether God will speak to us directly. God often, perhaps usually, speaks to us through others, and sometimes those other folks are not ones we expect to bear God’s message. Over the course of our lives, God’s words will come to us from many directions – some expected and some not. It is our task to listen and discern the word of God while being aware that it may come from a place we would never expect (and perhaps not respect). Once discerned we must accept the word of God regardless of the messenger. As Jesus said, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:35, NRSV). We need to keep our ears open regardless of our view of the person who is speaking to us; it may be magi who bring us good news of God’s work.

The Psalms often speak of God’s love and concern for people. In one place a psalmist says:

Why should the wicked revile God?
why should they say in their heart, “You do not care”?
Surely, you behold trouble and misery;
you see it and take it into your own hand. (Psalms 10:13-14, BCP)

The writer affirms that God not only sees what happens to us but that God gathers our woes into his hand and pulls them close to him. God wants to be involved in our trials and travails; God is moved by events in our lives because God cares. It is God’s nature to love and this love blossoms into compassion. Our trouble and misery aren’t forced into God’s hand; God chooses to reach out and take them.

Throughout the Old Testament we read of God acting to be closer to people and to bring people closer to God. In the law (Torah), the prophets, and other writings we are told of God’s work to bring us closer. The building of the temple in Jerusalem is one of the high points of this story. David planned, and Solomon built, a house for God’s presence in Israel. God, who cannot be contained in any building, accepts the temple as a place for God’s presence. (1 Kings 8,9). The temple is God in Israel’s midst; it is a place for God’s eyes and heart (1 Kings 9:3).

Despite God’s presence in the temple, and God’s words through prophets, the people moved away from God. We read the results of disobedience in 2 Kings and other books. One result of the disobedience is that the temple was destroyed. But the destruction of the temple and the punishments for disobedience did not negate God’s care and concern. God still desired to be close to the people and for the people to be close to God. God’s desire did not abate.

The best way the psalmist had to tell us of God’s caring is by saying that our trouble and misery are taken into God’s own hand. God watches from the heavens and reaches out to us. Later writers of scripture have a newer, and more sublime, way of speaking of God’s love and concern for us: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14, NRSV) In that short phrase John the evangelist revises the psalmist’s statement. God had reached out a hand (repeatedly); God had accepted the temple as a place for God’s eyes and hearts; God had spoken through prophets; what more shall God do to be close to us? God shall come and live among us. The way to be closer to us was to become one of us, so the Word, which was in the beginning, and was with God, and was God, came to live with us as one of us. (John 1:1)

This is how God came closer to us: God the Son became flesh and lived a human life. Jesus was born, grew up, loved, laughed, cried, made friends, had his heart broken, grieved, suffered, and died. This was a human life lived by the Son of God, the Word made flesh. These human experiences, the trials, the thrills, the joys, and the pains, were not just put into God’s hand. They went into Jesus’ heart – God’s heart. In the New Testament we learn that God, not being content to take our misery into his hand, instead took it into his heart. The heart of Jesus, the heart of a man, is also entry into the heart of God.

God wants to be close to us, and wants us to be close to him. There was a gulf between God and us. We could not bridge the gulf so God bridged it for us. Why would God do this? There is nothing we can add to God, the eternal, omnipotent, omniscient creator and sustainer of the universe. Let’s face it – God does not require us. The Word became flesh not because God needed the experience and not from curiosity about human life but because God loves us.

God shared in our life so that we may share in God’s life. This is the meaning of the incarnation: God is love, and that love covers all of creation, including, perhaps especially, us humans. The mystery of the incarnation is the mystery of God loving us and longing to be ever closer to us, and wanting us to be closer to God. This is what we celebrate in the Nativity.

Merry Christmas!

Christianity Today recently published an opinion piece entitled, “What Forgotten Christmas Tradition Should Churches Revive?” Three people, Patricia Raybon, Larry Eskridge, and Lore Ferguson, shared their candidate traditions, and one of the three struck a chord with me. Lore Ferguson writes about the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas (like in that song kids love to sing every year).

In churches which follow a liturgical calendar, December 25 is only the first day of Christmas. On the church calendar, Christmas is a season. Technically, December 25 is not called “Christmas” (that being the name of the season) but the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Christmas is the period from December 25 through January 5 inclusive; those are the twelve days of Christmas. January 6, the day following the season of Christmas, is Epiphany, the feast which commemorates the visit of the magi, or wise men, to Jesus, and by extension celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the gentiles. (You can read my reflection for Epiphany here.) Ms. Ferguson’s recommendation is that we should revive the celebration of Christmas as a season — give it twelve full days. One day isn’t enough for the love expressed in the incarnation or for the joy of receptive hearts. With this I totally agree. Read the rest of this entry »

The exact date of the birth of Jesus is unknown. The Bible gives very little information about the birth, and certainly does not give a date, yet for centuries Christmas has been celebrated on 25 December. How was this date chosen? Every year we hear someone state that the date was taken from pagan holidays, particularly the Roman Saturnalia festival which occurred in late December or the winter solstice celebrations of northern Europeans. The idea is that early Christians co-opted the pagan holidays to ease the transition of the people from pagan religions to Christianity. This theory is very popular and is generally taken as historical fact by people who care about why this date was chosen. However, the theory is almost certainly incorrect. Our celebration of Christmas on 25 December is probably due to a somewhat arcane theology about the passion and death of Jesus. Andrew McGowan, President and Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School, published an article which expounds the reasoning for choosing 25 December. The article, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” originally appeared in Bible Review, December 2002. It is available on the Biblical Archaeology web site as part of the Bible History Daily series. It is an interesting article and worth reading by anyone who is curious as to why this particular date was chosen.