Matt. 2:1-12 Epiphany, WPC January 6, 2008
Christ has been born. Has your world been changed forever?
It’s fascinating how birth changes things. I remember when my nephew Henry was born. My brother-in-law became so protective and cautious around us all; insisting that we wash our hands anytime we entered the same room as little Henry; keeping a watchful eye on us when we held him. Yet, when that baby was in my arms, the world was strangely different. Any tensions that may have previously existed were forgotten. All I could think was what a miracle; what a gift.
Valerie Garcia told me that she was relieved for obvious reasons that the child inside of her, in both instances of Bela and Antonio, was out of her body. Yet she was conflicted. She felt remarkable peace and tranquility holding her child in her arms; and at the same time, she could no longer protect the child as she once could before when it was in her womb. Her life was changed forever. (Harold’s?)
Jaleesa’s birth resulted in her mother putting her up for adoption, and Christel and Sander becoming the happy new parents. Now they see the world differently than before: They used to travel, and they rode their bikes around everywhere, now they are changing diapers, they must prepare many unusual things to carry with them before they can even set foot outside of their house: feeding formula, strollers, diapers, rags whatever; They can’t strap Jaleesa onto their bikes, yet! As a result of Jaleesa’s birth four people travel great distances to see her. Christel’s parents had visited only a few months back. And soon Sander’s parents, who had previously vowed they weren’t going to travel anymore. This baby has altered their perspective; changed their plans.
It was the birth of a child that led three wise men to travel from far away places in the east in search of this child. We know this story. They came from the East, “bringing gifts of Gold, frankincense and myrrh,” singing as they went, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” But it appears they’re lost when they get to Jerusalem, “Where is this future king of the Jews who has been born? Isn’t Jerusalem what the prophet Isaiah foretold? Had they programmed the wrong address into their GPS system?
An old poem recited to Jews in Jerusalem about 580 B.C.E.. inviting depressed, discouraged people in the midst of a city in shambles: no economy, little new possibilities to look up and hope; God is about to do good:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come…the Lord will arise upon you.
Jerusalem would become prosperous, the new international trade center. The nations—their leaders and traders—would come bringing wealth. Great camel caravans would come from Asia, loaded with exotic goods and rare spices: gold and frankincense. (v 6b)
These three foreign wise men from Asia knew what was to happen. They were fulfilling the poet’s vision: “Arise, the time has come, Jerusalem is our destination: Out of our way!”
But Herod doesn’t exactly roll out the red carpet upon their arrival: He was frightened; frightened because a new king in Jerusalem would be a threat to the old king and to all those who trusted in and benefited from the old order.2 Still for some reason, horrified Herod calls in his best aids, experts in sacred texts… to help the wise men out? What is this unwelcomed birth? And…Ah Ha!! Could this be it? Did they have the wrong scripture? It’s not Isaiah’s prophetic poetry—promising a future that ensures the powerful will remain powerful and prosper and that the status quo will remain intact—Isaiah won’t lead to the place of the newborn king.
Instead it is the voice of the prophet Micah, the voice of a peasant: from you, O Bethlehem, shall come forth one who is to rule in Israel, A peasant not impressed with high towers, huge sporting facilities, multinational banks and Wall Street. The little ones think about a different future—organized for well-being in resistance to the great powers. The voice anticipates a common leader, who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to folks on the ground. And they shall live secure…and he shall be the one of peace.
So off the magi go to the little town of Bethlehem, the hometown of king David, a little rural place, dusty, unnoticed, humble Bethlehem. This was the proper place for this unnoticed,
uncelebrated peasant birth….a birth that who would confound kings and intellectuals, and would provoke savage violence in Herod. And in the end, their visit to this peasant baby,
wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger changed the lives of the three magi forever. Before they seemed to be searching for power and glory, flocking to the potential center of power and prestige. In Bethlehem, they encounter humility, poverty, meekness,
and a precious baby, a different kind of king. And now, they don’t return to Herod as had been requested. They don’t seek their own self-serving interests or those interests of the powers.
They find alternative routes to pursue. They seek a different way home.
Today we celebrate a year that has gone and anticipate a year to come. Today we celebrate Epiphany which encourages us to anticipate the future Epiphany—the story of two human communities: Isaiah’s community of Jerusalem with its desire for greatness in the future…
and Micah’s little peasant village of Bethlehem with its modest promises.
Epiphany announces two ways of living we are always choosing between, a way of self-preservation and acceptance of the status quo, or through the encounter with the Christ child an invitation to practice life lived in vulnerability and self-sacrifice.
All this to say: What is our experience of the babe lying in a manger? How has the birth of this prince of peace, of Emmanuel changed our lives? Do we still pursue the interests of the powers? Seek to appease those in high positions with the hopes that it will serve us and we will gain prestige? Or have we discovered an alternative route; a different way home after coming face-to-face with baby Jesus: One of love and peace; of humility and meekness.
It’s really hard to imagine what an encounter with the baby Jesus would have been like; to see Mary and Joseph struggling to keep him warm, to keep him clean and fed. We didn’t see their fear when they had to run to Egypt for their lives because of political threat. Yet, I wonder if we can catch even a glimpse of the baby Jesus in every single baby that is born. What would make new-born baby Jesus distinct from another new born baby? What difference is there in Jesus from Jaleesa, other than gender? From any baby? A few physical characteristics? Jesus cried, Jesus slept, Jesus suckled. How does an encounter with a new born baby change our lives
and our perspective? Even for a moment? Even for a life-time?
I recently came across a story of a man, Freddy, his cow, and his encounter with a little baby. The grandparents of the baby, Rosa and Drake lived in a village where they were part of the ethnic minority group, with their older son, Cory, and his wife. War broke out and ethnic factions divided neighborhoods. They had been indifferent to the warring efforts, and despite being of the targeted ethnic minority, they resisted moving from their home and getting caught up in the ethnic slandering. But, on a dreary night in June 1992, the police came to the door for Cory. “Taking him away for interrogation,” they said. “but Cory never came back.” Rosa and Drake went nearly every day to the police station to beg for information. They were given nothing; and eventually had to assume he was dead. They were continually harassed by some in the town, and began to consider fleeing, but it would be months before they could get out.
Drake found himself digging trenches and chopping firewood for a living. There was little to eat. They were beginning to despair and to hate.
Five months after Cory’s disappearance, his wife gave birth to a girl. Because of severe food shortages, the mother was unable to nurse the child. The city was being shelled continuously.
Infants, like the infirm and the elderly, were dying in droves. The family gave the baby tea for five days, but she began to fade. “She was dying,” Rosa said. “It was breaking our hearts.”
Meanwhile, a man named Freddy, was keeping his cow in a field on the eastern edge of the town; milking it at night to avoid being hit by Serbian snipers. He had seen this baby. And five days after the baby was born, “just before dawn, someone was at the door,” Rosa remembered.
“It was Freddy in his black rubber boots. He handed us half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to his own people, to let the our child die.
He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until we left.”
When Rosa and Drake left, they could no longer communicate with Freddy. The couple said they grieved daily for their son; their home, their losses. But Rosa and Drake also said that despite their anger and loss, they could not recite their own sufferings, without telling of Freddy and his cow. This is the power of love. “What this illiterate farmer did would color the life of another human being, a little baby who might never meet him. In his act lay an ocean of hope.“ Drake whispered, “The milk he had was precious; it was hard to keep animals. He gave us 221 liters. And every year at this time, when it is cold and dark, when we close our eyes,
we can hear the boom of the heavy guns and the sound of Freddy’s footsteps on the stairs.”
Freddy fell on hard times after the war. He ended up selling small piles of worm-eaten apples picked from abandoned orchards. His great brown-and-white milk cow did not survive the war.
It had been slaughtered for meat. He had only a thin, worn coat to protect him from the winter cold. He sat huddled in the corner of a dank, concrete-walled room rubbing his pathetic collection of small apples, against his sleeve.
Yet, when a contact relayed news of Rosa and Drake, his eyes brightened. “And the baby? he asked, “How is she?”3
In spite of all the hardships, a baby can transform fear into love and compassion. In spite of all of the worries, a baby can transform selfishness into self-sacrifice and vulnerability. In spite of our desires for power and prestige, a baby can transform greed into giving.
How might the cries of a new born baby, change our perspectives? How might the Christ child transform our lives forever? Can we hold onto that innocence, can we hold onto that peace?
1 Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text, “Missing by Nine Miles,” 2004, pp. 129-134.
2 Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text, “Missing by Nine Miles,” 2004, pp. 129-134.
3 Modified version of the story found in Chris Hedges’, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, 2002, pp. 51-54.