4 JANUARY 2015
Christmas has come and gone for another year. The ever-present strains of holiday music that filled our ears for weeks on end is now hushed. It is the silence out of which a new year is being born. The candles have been extinguished. Lights have been put away. The Christmas tree and the evergreen garlands wait patiently by the kerb to be taken to the landfill. The absence of decorations exposes an eerie emptiness around the house. The warm festivities of only a few days ago seem like memories of a distant past.
On Christmas Eve our hearts were renewed as we listened again to the Nativity story, vividly cast in our imaginations upon the pastoral Palestinian hillsides near Bethlehem.
Smelly shepherds caring for even smellier sheep were trying to bed-down for the night; their daily routine interrupted by an angel with a message and an angelic glee club with a new song to be sung. Those shepherds decided to go into town to see for themselves what was going on. And they discovered a young family from Nazareth, an unmarried couple away from home with a newborn baby, and none of the conveniences even of that time and place.
Those shepherds were not all together clear about what they had seen and heard that night, but their hearts were filled with joy. They seemed to know down deep inside that their lives changed that night, that their world was a different place, that something new was taking place right before their eyes.
As this story was unfolding on the slopes of Palestine, another story was developing. The Magi -- wise men we sometimes call them -- came from out of the east and started asking questions around town. "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We have followed his rising star and we have come to give him honour."
Who are these men? Where are they from? How did they get word of all this? And for heaven's sake, what is this business about following a star? When outsiders from a foreign place show up asking questions about things the locals are not sure about themselves, you can imagine what the reaction of the authorities might have been!
King Herod was a little shaken up by it all, and he works at getting the Magi to help him locate the child. Indeed, the three strange foreigners find the child and are so overwhelmed by what they find that they fall upon their knees in worship and praise and adoration. Like the shepherds on the hillside, they begin to realize that something is changing in their world, which a new thing is happening, that a new world is being born. In a dream they receive a warning and escape from King Herod before giving him the information he so desperately desires.
And still another angel warns Mary and Joseph to take the baby and escape south to Egypt until Herod is dead and their return home is safe.
It is a wonderful story, full of emotion and intrigue, easy to picture in our mind's eye. It provides the inspiration for art and music, for poetry and song. Few stories told through the centuries are so familiar, so beloved, so rich with pathos and delight.
It is the stuff out of which children's nativity pageants are made: shepherds in muslin wraparounds with ropes around their waists. Mary in her blue gown and Joseph looking bewildered by it all; angels in choir robes and aluminium foil halos, and wise men in coloured bathrobes with tea cosies on their heads. The tableau unfolds just as it should, and it ends on a glorious note when the Magi fall upon their knees and worship Christ the newborn king. It warms the heart and we feel all warm and satisfied inside.
The story is so familiar, but our Christmas music and children's pageants have so domesticated it that the point the evangelist is making may well be hid from our eyes.
Matthew was telling the story of the birth of Jesus for new Christians, for new followers of the Way. And even in so young a church it seems that their vision was limited. The boundaries of their community were already closing tightly around them. Matthew could see already that the new believing community was too easily settling into the idea that this new life in Christ was for them; they were already getting too comfortable with themselves and too easily willing to put others outside.
Matthew shocks his reader's right from the first verse of his gospel by recounting the genealogy of Jesus. He does so in a way that must have confounded those who first read it. A genealogy in those days was traced through the male lineage, but Matthew breaks from tradition and includes four women in his list of the ancestors of Jesus. And they were not just any four women. They were women whose lives bore the scars of prostitution and incest, of adultery and murder. Matthew is laying the groundwork, even in his seemingly boring list of names of folks long dead, that the new day that is dawning is quite different from anything one might be expecting.
And Matthew keeps up the theme when he introduces the Magi, or wise men as we sometimes call them, but that is almost surely to assign them a status that would have been unrecognized by Matthew's readers. Some have suggested they were philosophers; others have called them astrologers because of their fascination with the stars. But whoever they were and wherever they were from, Matthew's point is that they are not from here; these are not hometown folks, with hometown values, and hometown upbringing. These were odd fellows from some foreign land, the kind of folks that the Scriptures warn good religious people to stay away from. The first hearers of Matthew's story of Jesus would not have had such warm, fuzzy feelings when the Magi fell to their knees before the manger-throne of the King of Kings. Quite the opposite! Matthew's readers would have been scandalized by the audacity of three strangers from a foreign land who would dare to show up in their hometown to worship and adore their newborn king. We can't have this would have been their first response, and it was precisely the response that Matthew was hoping for!
Matthew had them right where he wanted them, and now he could begin to unfold the rest of the story of Jesus. He could now remind his readers -- and he continues to remind us -- that the saving word of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not for some, but for all. Not for men only, but also for women. Not for the perfect only, but for those whose lives bear the scars of unmentionable human pain? Not for the hometown crowd only, but for those on the other side of the tracks, the next town over or halfway around the world. Not for those who believe just like we do, but also for those who are struggling to believe anything at all, or those who have lost their faith.
The star comes and rests over the place where the infant Jesus was born. Keep your eyes on it. Gaze at the star. Focus on it. Fix it firmly in your mind.
Because in time you will discover that the points of the star will stretch themselves into the form of a cross, and it will no longer rest over the place of where the child lay, but will come to rest over your life and the world you inhabit.
Some years ago, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York plastered the city with posters of the altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral lavishly decorated for Christmas. It was a warm and inviting sight. The poster's caption was simple: "Come home." No matter where you've been or who you have been with, no matter what you've been up to, or how long you have been away, "Come home."
That is the invitation implicit in today's gospel: "Come home." Home is for everybody. Even for wise guys from the east who stumble upon the Lord of Lords, and the King of Kings. And the home for the Christ Child is in every heart that will have it so.