Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12
Christmas as sweetness and light? There is no eluding Herod, though.
Nearing his own death, Herod inflicts death on so many innocents. The magi were lucky to survive after cheekily saying to his face, “Where is the king of the Jews? We have come to worship him” (verse 2).
I get tickled over the magi, and I wonder if Matthew somewhere in the back of his mind saw a comic element here. You have the hilarious scene in The Life of Brian when the magi show up at the wrong house; and Owen Meany’s moaning over “We Three Kings”: “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying doesn’t sound very Christmasy to me.” Christmas pageants can be funny, the wise men wearing cardboard crowns, trying to muster a wise face.
They were magi—astrologers! What bawdy humor: non-Jews who practice illegitimate arts find the Christ child, while the Bible people missed it. God is so very determined to be found. A Libra, a Pisces, and a Taurus worshipping Jesus—a Capricorn? What are Capricorns like? Can the preacher name the irony without sarcastically slamming the Bible believers in the pews?—that God might just be found outside the church, at night, in the arts, or in non-sacred music or literature, even within other religions?
Sometimes Bible readers get mixed up about which Herod was which. Herod the Great ruled when Jesus was born. But it was Herod Antipas, his son, who reigned when Jesus was crucified. There also was Herod Archaelaus, Herod Philip, and not one but two Herod Agrippas in the Bible! But really, Herod, Herod, and Herod are the same guy. All were egotistical, insecure, petty potentates, in bed with the Romans, and clueless about God.
Typically around Christmas I fume about the commercialization of the holiday. Can we blame the magi for kickstarting this with their gifts? A child sees himself as the Baby Jesus, to whom others bring great gifts! Yet it is a season to “traverse afar” and give to those we love. Notice the magi brought gifts of immense value, what was precious to themselves. If the Christ child is the one we love, can we give Jesus, and those who are marginalized who bear his image, not our leftovers but what is especially valuable to us?
They brought gifts of immense value; they brought what was precious to themselves. They parted with what they adored to adore the Lord. We are not so wise in our giving. I traverse not far at all when I shop, as I do it online. Why? It is “easier,” more “convenient” for me. Or convenient for the recipient—hence the bane of gift cards, which say a lot about the giver (who has not bothered to be creative or to think through the other person’s life and snoop around to find something meaningful), and even more about our vapid culture. We give cards … why? “They should be able to get what they want.” Is life about what I want? What if I cannot get what I want, or if I get something I did not want? A friend ruefully told me about Christmas day with his grandchildren, who already owned much stuff before Christmas, unwrapping gift cards, swapping them like trading cards with cousins, and rushing over to the mall to purchase yet more unnecessary items. What do we give one another? What do we give to God?
Epiphany, a season I learned once upon a time to be the quintessential mission season, the light to the nations, the green growth of the gospel. Do Christian people believe that any more? What would it mean for Christians to evangelize Afghanistan, or Belarus, or Turkey, or the formerly Christian but now utterly secular nations of Europe? Not tracts, or even compelling stories will have the slightest impact. Maybe it would be the Church being the Church, showing that love, listening, compassion, and not being so stridently angry or terribly afraid? What if our calling, our witness today is to model reconciliation, togetherness, not being right but humbly loving—so compellingly that other people down the street notice and want in on it? And then to have that spread all over the place? With social media, you never know…
And I can never neglect the tantalizing ending: “They left for their own country by another road” (verse 12). Frightened by Herod? Of course they did. But there is some mystery here—that once you have met the Christ child, you do not keep plodding along the same old pathways. It is a new day, a new road. T.S. Eliot ended his poem about the magi with “We returned to our places … but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” Jesus does not make my life easier or more comfortable. The closer we are to Jesus, the more we sense our dis-ease in this place.