Christmas 1A (Dec 29, 2019)

The story is both ours and not ours. The story is ours because it is part of Christ’s birth narrative and for 2,000 years the Church has read it. The story is not ours because most of us cannot claim as our personal experience the experience of Joseph, Mary, and their toddler Jesus, fleeing death squads, fleeing first to one country and then to another. Perhaps the best place for us today is on the margins of this story, with the point of view of characters barely mentioned yet important. Perhaps the best place for us today is as the Magi, the “wise men.”

            Matthew calls them “magi” which here seems to mean “astrologers.” In those days, astronomy and astrology were not separate disciplines, and while just like now some people rejected astrology, many if not most believed the stars governed life. Matthew tells us that somewhere east of Jerusalem some astronomers noted a strange star rising in the east. Consulting their star charts and best resources they determined that a child had been born king in Judea. The idea is that these non-Jews can tell that a King of the Jews has been born. They want to honor him. They make it as far as Jerusalem, but from there require help. It is ultimately Scripture experts who understand Bethlehem must be the place to go. Now, with Scripture interpreted to them, the magi head to Bethlehem and the star miraculously goes before them the last few miles, right to the house. They present their gifts and are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. In today’s reading they are mentioned only as having left and having double-crossed Herod.

            These outsiders reveal much of the world into which Jesus is born. It is a world in which at least some professional interpreters of Scripture serve a wicked king and help him. It is a world in which a wicked king, who already has multiple murders on his head, is terrified of a child and orders the murder of all toddlers in one city in the hopes that he gets the one he wants. It is a world in which God does new things—warning magi, warning Joseph—but always hews close to Scripture. The angels or Saint Matthew himself constantly tell us these events have connections to Scripture. We saw in last Sunday’s gospel that it’s a world in which Joseph dreams and interprets Scripture; interpretation is not reserved for the pros (and certainly not for Herod’s pros).

It’s a world in which families must flee from certain death: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee from the puppet kingdom of Judea to the Roman province of Egypt. It’s a world in which tyrants cannot live forever: Herod dies. Jesus returns. It’s also a world in which the death of a tyrant does not fix everything. Joseph guesses it won’t be safe at home and makes a new home. According to Matthew, Joseph is from Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Nazareth is his third home in just a few years, and the holy family lives there as resident aliens or Judean expats. It is a world most of us would not claim as ours, though if we honestly appraised our world, we would have to admit that these things happen today. If we were really edgy, we might argue these sorts of things go on around us and we choose not to notice. Matthew names this reality. If we are going to play magi in this story, we are part of the reality Matthew names.

Matthew’s got this quirk where he doubles stuff. Many characters and scenes have partners or doublets. These explain each other. The doublets for the birth of Jesus are found in the events leading to the death of Jesus. At the birth, professional interpreters of Scripture help Herod try to kill Jesus; at the death, professional interpreters of Scripture work to fabricate charges against Jesus. In both stories Jesus has a death sentence for being “King of the Jews.” At the birth, that sentence is from Herod; at the death, it’s from Pilate. At the birth, Joseph and Mary flee with Jesus; at the death, the disciples flee without Jesus. At the birth, Jesus returns. After the death, Jesus returns. As a young child, circumstances force Jesus upon his return to go elsewhere. After the resurrection, circumstances drive Jesus and his followers elsewhere.

We are the magi. Who is our double? Matthew alone tells us of Pilate’s wife. While Jesus is before Pilate, Pilate receives a message from his wife: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” It is all she says, but there you have it: warned in a dream and trying to prevent a murderous ruler from doing something terrible. Still only a marginal character. She’s even more marginal than the magi. She gives her one line from off camera and disappears for all eternity. Life as the Church can feel like that sometimes: we tried to stop something terrible from happening. It happened anyway. And, um, yeah, I guess that’s it. Well, see you in the resurrection, then. When the Pastor writes in 1 Timothy, “Fight the good fight of the faith,” he knows: a lot of the time that is all you’ve got.

For all the doublets Matthew uses, something is missing from the passion and death that is present in the birth story, the story we conclude today. That is someone who interprets Scripture properly. Last week I said Joseph sought a merciful, charitable, creative application of the Law when he discovered Mary was pregnant. The angel gave him the best approach: take Mary as your wife, claim the baby as your own. He’s from God, after all. In today’s scene, God continues talking through angels with Joseph, the interpreter of Scripture. At Christ’s death, we’re missing an interpreter. There’s the marginal dreamer: Pilate’s wife plays the Magi part. But the dreamer who can interpret Scripture is missing; no one plays Joseph’s part. And, where in the birth narrative Jesus eludes death, in the death narrative, well, obviously, he dies. Without a good interpreter of Scripture on hand, we wind up with the official religious powers begging for a crucifixion and getting one. And I’m not going to try to probe the mind of God, but insofar as Jesus was human I’m fairly confident he was not interested in being crucified if he could avoid it. A good interpreter, a Joseph, would have said, “Uh, hey, guys! It says in the Torah that having a foreign occupying power murder someone by hanging them from a tree because you don’t like him is wrong.” I mean honestly the best interpreter of Scripture is Jesus, and they’re shutting him up. The situation calls for someone to make a bold interpretation. Pilate’s wife cannot; she doesn’t know Scripture. The magi cannot; they’re back home, and also don’t know Scripture. But we do.

While the story of fleeing murderous soldiers, flying first to one country and then to another, is not the story for most of us, it is the Church’s story. Scripture, however alien to us, is ours. This scene, the murder of the innocents, and the other, the passion and murder of Jesus, they’re something we can know. They’re something God can make into ours. The situation demands an interpretation. Right now in our world there are professional, official interpreters who insist that Scripture texts that urged Christians not to worship other gods are actually texts forbidding homosexuality. There are official interpreters who take God’s words, “I have plans for your welfare and not for harm”—words spoken to people about to be conquered, captured, and exiled, words meant to comfort them as life takes a terrible turn— there are interpreters who take these words as proof God wants you to get rich no matter the cost. There are official interpreters who have chosen not to interpret Christ and instead interpret current world leaders as the fulfillment of Scripture. There are official interpreters who take the story of the woman caught in adultery—the famous, “let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone at her”—and somehow decide that the point of the story is not forgiveness or our shared brokenness but rather the final “God and sin no more,” which must be upheld possibly with lethal force. In other words, the cross threatens to happen again.

Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes that the cross is God’s ultimate yes to us and our ultimate no to God. In the cross, God suffers the very worst human beings can do. In the cross, human beings respond to God by offering the very worst they can do. Like Herod, like Pilate. Like anyone. It’s Christmas, and we’re celebrating God’s coming into the world. It’s a world that uses Scripture to say and justify horrible things. We may not be the victims of those horrible things. We may not be able to claim the flight to Egypt as our own story. Or we may be able to claim to be victims some of the time, bystanders the rest of the time.

We may instead need to approach this story from the margins, as people for whom this is not our story, yet people who wish to worship the God revealed in the infant Jesus Christ. If so, we will, like St. Matthew, name the reality. Ours is a world in which the murder of Bethlehem’s toddlers and the crucifixion of the Nazorean are the sort of thing people use Scripture to justify. We will also do something new, something the Magi and Pilate’s wife could not: interpret Scripture against those who use it to harm. Matthew says that when Jesus returned to Palestine circumstances forced him to a new district, Galilee. Matthew says that when Jesus rose from the dead, circumstances led him to expand the mission from “the lost sheep of Israel” to “all nations, unto the end of the age.” I have to think that today circumstances demand that a Church that wants to be faithful to Christ will name the ways in which it has failed him and the ways in which he continues to abide with us. That we will counter the ruthless interpretations of this world with ones like the angel’s “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” That we will ask God, “How can we not embody the worst no that we can scream at you, but rather embody the profound yes that you declare to us, even from a cross.”