“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas! Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, so we get to say that one more time. The Son of God has been born into the world as a human being and we’ve been rejoicing ever since the day of his birth. Today we find him, the child born king of the Jews, in the house where the wise men from the east behold, for the first time, the manifestation of the Son of God to the peoples of the earth. If Christmas proclaims that there was never an event as new as the Incarnation of our Lord, then tomorrow, the Feast of the Epiphany, will proclaim how this unprecedented event will work itself out in the lives of those who encounter it.
Our Gospel today concludes with the wise men returning to their country by another road. In the most immediate sense, this is in direct response to a message from an angel warning them to get out of town without checking back in with King Herod, as they had originally planned to do. But the reality is that they could not have possibly returned home the same way as they came, for they are no longer the same people. Had they not knelt before the King and Savior of the world? The one who is very God of very God and yet fully human, born of the flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Such an encounter makes for an irrevocable change and an overwhelming joy. Once the wise men enter the house, they are not the same people that they were. And after they leave the house, there are no steps to be re-traced and even their journey home will be unfamiliar. It is certainly not the journey that they had expected. They have witnessed the Epiphany, the manifestation of the Son of God to the world. Before that, human life was just like it is right now at the beginning of a new decade and had always been. We have always been the people that we were. And none of our hopes for innovation and progress can ever quite shake that knowledge from us. Nothing can save us that is possible, the poet W.H. Auden said, for We who must die demand a miracle.
The wise men have certainly witnessed a miracle and are filled with overwhelming joy, but this Epiphany immediately places them in the midst of a crisis. Already, even as a child, Jesus is refusing to remain fixed in the quaint timelessness of the Nativity scene that we’ve become so accustomed to. And it’s the presence of the wise men themselves that signals something of the disruption that Jesus will bring on earth. Remember that the wise men had brought with them more than just gifts; having been sent by King Herod, they had been unknowingly wrapped up in a plot to eliminate this rival king of the Jews. They brought with them the imminent and inevitable threat that Christ would encounter on earth. And to postpone this threat until the appointed time, the wise men must depart by another road and the Holy Family must flee into Egypt to escape the murderous wrath of King Herod. Desperate times and desperate measures, but sometimes, this is how it works when you sign up with the Incarnation.
Let’s think of it in terms of the soul. Before we encounter the manifestation of Christ, we’re all on good terms with the powers that be that have taken charge of things in our souls -- all our commitments and sins and vices and such. But once you are lead to search for the true king of the Jews, the Messiah, that’s when you start sensing the disturbances. When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.
Remember that when Mary and Joseph tried to find lodging in Bethlehem, there was no place for them in the inn. There was no place for Jesus. A simple explanation that will end up defining the rest of his life on earth. There was no room for him to be found in any of the existing arrangements. The inn that was already full -- the inn that was unable to accommodate Mary when the time came for her to deliver the Son of God -- this inn represents the entire world. There was no place for them. The birth of the Savior would have to make do with whatever could be found at the edges of a world in which everything already had its proper place -- everything except the birth of the Savior, of course. Those who encounter Christ are aligned with him, which means that they threaten all the powers that seek to rule the soul. And just like King Herod, they all will panic and seek to restore order by whatever means necessary.
We like to imagine that a new year is like a clean slate that hasn’t been tarnished or compromised by the past yet, a fresh expanse of pure possibility and opportunity. And this is of course why new year’s resolutions are a thing and why people are usually pretty optimistic about the prospect of a new year, at least in their personal lives.
But in stark contrast to the personal optimism that we usually have at the new year, the arrival of this new decade has brought with it a collective feeling of angst and foreboding. Surely you’ve sensed the anxiety out there, right? Because a decade is different. Unlike a single year of personal goals, a decade is about history, culture, society, politics. It’s bigger than all of us and is in no way predictable or subject to our planning. Nor does a new decade allow us to so easily pretend that the past is far gone. This next decade will forge itself from the stuff that we have provided from the previous one. As 2020 begins, we are reminded that we are still the people that we were.
In the midst of all of this, in between all the resolutions for self-improvement in the coming year and the angst that our social and political crises will likely intensify in the coming decade, Christians find themselves at the cusp of the Epiphany. And the Epiphany is the only thing that actually changes us; the only thing that, upon our encounter with it, makes us not like the people that we were. That won’t necessarily resolve the crises or remove us from them, anymore than it did for the wise men, but it will align us with Christ within them as we’re lead on towards seeing the glory of God face to face.
So Happy New Year! Amen.