I have a pastor friend who collects a lot of crèche scenes. He especially likes really bad ones. My favorite is a certain one which has all the regular elements one might expect: Mary the God bearer, Joseph her protector, the shepherds, a donkey and some sheep and there kneeling at the side of the Christ child is a wise man. But not one from the East like in today’s gospel reading….but one from the North. As in the North Pole. In this crèche scene none other than Santa Claus himself knees at the manger. You’d think that would be enough irony but no. It gets better. Also in the same manger scene with Santa Claus right next to the sheep and donkey…was a pig. Yes, nothing says Biblical illiteracy like depicting swine at the birth of our very Jewish Lord. But that’s what happens when we are familiar with stories without actually knowing them.
I wonder how well we really know these stories, like the wise men of which are so familiar. For instance, if we asked 100 people the following: who brought gifts to the Christ child, how many people were there, where were the people from and where did they bring their gifts to…inevitably people would respond: 3 kings from the orient brought the baby Jesus gifts in the manger. And everyone around would likely nod their heads and say “yep. that sounds right” 3 kings form the orient bringing gifts to Jesus in a manger is a charming story but it’s not actually the one we find in the Bible…it’s the one we find in the insufferable song “We Three Kings of Orient are”
A closer reading of the text results in the realization that we have no idea how many there were, we don’t know how far east they came from, was it the Orient … was it Aurora? When they found the child they entered not a stable or a barn with a manger but a house and most importantly…and I kind of hate to break to you…they were definitely not kings. They were Magi. as in ..Magicians… and not the cute kind you hire for you kid’s birthday party either. They were opportunistic, pagan, soothsaying, tarot card reading, astrologers. Yet we made them and remember them to be kings.
On some level we like the idea of kings bowing down before the Christ child. We’ve made them kings because the reality that they were magicians is too distasteful. No one wants the weird fortune teller lady from the circus with her scarves and crystal balls to be the first to discover the birth of our Lord. So we nicen it up a bit to an idealized picture of multi-cultural diplomacy.
But they aren’t fereign kings, they were magi and In case you think I’m putting too fine a point on this listen to St Paul’s description of a Magi he and Barnabus met up with in the 13th chapter of Acts
You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery.
Can you imagine him following this up with “and what was it like when you followed the star to the Christ child?”
Picturing oriental kings at the birth of our Lord is preferable to picturing soothsayers and astrologers and tarot card readers kneeling before the Christ child. But it was magicians following a star, a light in the dark of the sky which led unlikely pagans to the light which is come into the world. That’s what Matthew’s gospel gives us. Magi. And the magicians are even the first to speak in Matthew. Yet we made them kings. This couldn’t be more ironic….making the Magi into kings like we are doing them some great favor, because honestly everything in this text is decidedly anti-king. I mean, there is a king in the text…but it’s Herod. A scheming, frightened, insecure, troglodyte who puts a hit out on a toddler. There’s what the text has to say about kings. But our need for the Magi to be kings, our need to nicen up the story a bit puts us in a position to actually have compassion for Herod. I mean…the text says that he was frightened and all of Jerusalem with him. the idea that God would enter the world and upturn the very idea of kingship is understandably frightening to Herod. And for us the idea that God would enter a world amidst infanticide and religious violence is also frightening. The idea that God would enter the world and keep the most impolite company possible is frightening. The idea that God would see the mess we’ve made would be embarrassing. At least call and worn us so we can clean up the place a bit first.
I wonder if our fear of what this means for God to enter the world in such a disagreeable way makes for some interesting revisionism. But the Epiphany story of the fortune telling circus lady discovering the Christ child reveals a God who has entered our world as it actually exists, and not as the world we often wish it would be. This is a God whose presence is not limited to our polite revisions of Biblical stories, but a God who has come to actually consecrate our fear and frailty and suffer their consequences on our behalf.
This is the difference between being familiar with a story and knowing it.
We are familiar with the big star shining above the top of the manger scene. But know that this light, this star which led these Magi to the Christ is a light that shines for you too. This light which points to God shines for all of humanity: Samaratins, Magi, tax collectors, High priests, Herod, AND the people who put Santa and swine in creche scenes.
We may be familiar with the story of the 3 kings bringing gifts to Jesus, but I want you to know about the Magi and how their very distasteful and misplaced presence at the side of the Christ child actually means that the indiscriminate nature of God’s insistent coming to us defies our polite tendencies to nicen up the story.
My friend Justin reminded me this week that God’s love is too pure to enter into a world that does not exist, even though this often how we treat Jesus, as we try to shelter him from the reality of our own brokenness. We often behave as though Jesus were only interested in saving and loving a romanticized version of ourselves, or an idealized version of our mess of a world, and so we offer to him a version of our best selves, and I’m afraid that our religion unintentionally promotes this sort of thing.
The birth of this Christ child is a sordid affair, indeed. While I have no doubts that there were moments of pure bliss and other worldly joy to the whole affair, it seems to me that these moments occur in, with and under what we would call reality, and not apart from it because this is a God who has come to love and save the world as it actually exists.
Which is actually what the world needs.