The Epiphany of Christ
January 5, 2020
For a brief but intense period in middle and high school the thing I liked to read more than anything was retellings of fairy tales. The particular pleasure of these novels was that I knew I would know the story—Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty—but I never knew when the “tell” would come, and I would read, coming inside the strange world of the book, waiting for something that would tip me off as to where I was.
There is a great deal of power in how you tell a story, and there are many, many ways to do it. Our four gospels are one clear example; Paul’s repeated explanations to various officials of how he came to be in that region preaching is another. The Confessions that make up part of our church constitution, pieces of our heritage, are retellings of the same things over and over, as situations demanded. The way a story is told gives it power. The way a story is told holds clues for the hearer, to show them what story they’re in.
There are tells in the gospel passage today. The frankincense and myrrh brought from foreign lands to Israel are signposts to Isaiah: Here, now, again, on Mary and Joseph’s front stoop, are they to arise and shine; there, in that house, the glory of the Lord is shining; nations and kings of nations were prophesied, and there are the magi crowding into their kitchen with their lavish gifts. The story they are in is the story of joy and radiance, of the return to what should be, of restoration, brought by the little child the magi went all that way to see.
There could be other tells, of course. Perhaps the blustering king means we’re in Esther, with the fate of a people on the line. Perhaps the appearance of Bethlehem means we’re out in the fields with David while Samuel, the prophet, goes looking for which of Jesse’s sons he is to anoint as king. Perhaps the conference with the wise and learned councillors of the king means we’re in Egypt, and its doublespeaking ruler is looking for any reason not to let God’s people be free.
Of course no story is reducible to its echoes; yet each echo is another way in for the people of every age to the story of what God has done and is still doing. We follow a good and a steadfast God who is always doing the same thing in different ways, bringing the old justice springing up in new shapes, being the same God to new people who, nonetheless, make the old mistakes in new ways of their own. God always comes to God’s people; righteousness is always met with hostility; those who hold power are always warped by it; God’s promises are always kept. Fear and death come again and again, and hope and life always sprout in their ashes. Our world cannot be as good as it was made to be, and yet the love of God continually sustains it, every moment of every day. Every tell, every echo, every reminder of what has been offers a flash of insight into where we are now.
I would tell the story this way.
I would say: There were astronomers, people who had been studying the sky, and history books, and old manuals, for years and years, trying to understand the world around them. They were very practiced at taking what information they could get and combing through it for meaning. One night, searching the sky, they saw something new. It took them awhile to figure out what it was, but they knew it was important, so the time spent in their libraries seemed worth it to them. And after a while, they found the confirmation they were looking for: It was important. So they packed their bags and they set off.
They were relieved to have each other for company on the way. They were on the road for weeks, for one thing; it would have taken weeks to get where they were going under the best of circumstances, and they were not entirely sure where they were going. And they couldn’t really explain to people what their goal was—well, they could, but they got strange looks, or people changed the subject, or started talking to them differently, or sometimes got hostile. But they knew what they were going to find, and it was worth it, so they kept going.
After a time they arrived in a city. This seemed to them a good place to find what they were looking for: kings, after all, live in cities. The shopkeepers and laborers and weavers and herders they passed in the streets were willing enough to point them towards the palace, though none of them seemed excited by the thought. And at the palace the guards were, after some conference, happy enough to open the gates, though the astronomers thought they noticed the guards exchanging looks. And the king was pleased enough to welcome them into his throne room, and his many councillors and learned men were gracious enough in speech, though the astronomers thought they noticed tension in the king’s voice and the councillors did not seem to want to meet their eyes.
“We’ve come to greet the new king, and pay him homage,” the astronomers said. But there had been no babies born at the palace. “We saw his star,” the astronomers explained, undeterred. “We know he is here. We want to see him.”
The king summoned everyone learned in the city and demanded to know where this new king was to be born. “It isn’t proper,” he said, “for a king to be… hidden away.” He drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne.
“He’s in Bethlehem,” said one learned person after another. “The City of David.” “Bethlehem of Judah.” “‘By no means least among the rulers of Judah…’” “The new shepherd comes from Bethlehem.”
“Ah, Bethlehem, of course, of course,” said the king, himself Jewish, though only for a generation, and anxious about his bonafides. “Of course, Bethlehem. You go,” he said to the astronomers, who were waiting patiently. They were accustomed to waiting. The sky moved slowly. “You go to Bethlehem. Give this new king your gifts. And then, come back here and tell me where to find him. I want to… visit him, too.” There was an edge in the king’s voice, nervous motion in his knees. His councillors looked straight ahead.
The astronomers left the palace. They were only a half-day’s walk from Bethlehem, if they hurried. They arrived as the sun was beginning to sink, and the light was turning as gold as the bars in one of their saddlebags, and the first bright stars were winking faintly into view. Including their star. “Has there been a baby born?” they asked shopkeepers, laborers, herders. “In the last year or two? Under… strange circumstances? Rumors?” There had been lots of babies, of course, but just one born under circumstances strange enough for these dusty strangers to be looking. Pointed fingers led them to a tiny house on a narrow street. A young woman was kneading bread, while a man was crouching over a small child, the child’s hands holding tight to two of the man’s fingers while it took wobbling steps, screeching with glee. As the astronomers’ camels blocked the light to the window, the small family looked up. They were taken aback, but not, the astronomers thought, altogether surprised.
The astronomers knelt before the little boy and opened their chests, and the little room was filled with the glow of gold and the perfume of incense and balm.
That night the astronomers slept as best they could on the floor of the little house. They tossed and turned with ugly, frightening dreams: the king’s face, red and shouting, and the sounds of men and women wailing and children crying. They woke before dawn, sitting up to face each other in the gray light.
“We must go another way,” said one.
“We must go another way,” said the others, nodding. “We must go another way.”“We have seen the child; now we must go another way.”
These are the things I see in this story, today, this reading. I see people following their best lights, in the face of confusion, hostility, indifference. I see a king, anxious, fragile, impulsive, prevaricating, cruel, fingers on his sword, uncertain of his power and determined to keep it. I see hope, burning brightly in the midst of looming death. And I see those who have seen Christ choosing another way, risking the full wrath of the king to choose another way.
Have you seen the tells? Do you know what story we are in?
May we, who have seen the Christ, have the courage to choose another way. Amen.