Friday, January 04, 2013


I wonder if you know your star sign?  I'm a Saggitarius, which apparently makes me open-minded, generous but prone to overlook pernickety details, and a  - shall we say? – enthusiastic lover.  I doubt there are very many of us who actually believe in astrology as a reliable means of understanding ourselves or even more improbably, predicting when we are going to bump into tall dark strangers – either the popular magazine variety or the more arcane and intellectual version that individually plots the positions of the sun and all the planets at the exact time of your birth – but fascination with the night sky and the belief that the stars and planets can somehow be read as a coded map to important events down below is as old as human civilisation.  It's not hard to see how ancient humans looked up at the dazzling night sky – the brilliance of the constellations that we moderns only get to see when we travel away from our cities and major towns – and the sudden fall of a meteorite or shooting star – and saw in its patterns a pantheon of gods – a map that lent itself not only to terrestrial but also to spiritual navigation.  Incidentally, right now apparently is the time to get a good view of the International Space Station traversing the night sky across Australia – you can log into the NASA web site to register for a text message alert so you can get woken up in the middle of the night to go outside and see the six-minute fly-past of the second brightest object in the night sky.  Matthew's astrologers would have had to have pretty fast camels to keep up with this one.

Because astrologers is what they were, according to Matthew, magi or students of the occult from the East, possibly even from Babylon which some astrologers, at least, consider the birthplace of modern Western astrology.  The Feast of the Epiphany – the feast of the "aha" moment, or the sudden and momentous revelation – is not just the last of the 12 days of Christmas and the correct day for taking down plastic Christmas trees and tinsel – but the Church's original Feast of the Incarnation, predating Christmas by at least two centuries.  In the ancient world, the Greek word epiphaneia was the solemn visit of a ruler to the cities of his realm – and so in the Christian tradition the name was applied to the visit of earthly rulers who seek out the newborn Christ to pay homage.  In other words, the ancient Church took the usual meaning of the word Epiphany and subverted it – the real rule; the real kingship belongs to God and is revealed in the Incarnation, not in human dreams of power and importance.  In fact Matthew's story of travelling kings and satellite navigation is more than a little cheeky, and politically dangerous, whatever its historical basis.  Modern sceptics who patiently explain that stars don't normally travel at camel's pace, just up ahead until we get to the right stable – or who tiresomely point out that Halley's comet didn't appear at the right time for Matthew's story simply miss the point of this politically explosive nativity story.  Because Jesus wasn't the only ancient personage to be called the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, not the only king whose birth was heralded by a star or who received grovelling homage from barbarian astrologers.  The other one was Caesar Augustus, whose portrait with the words, 'Son of God' was doing the rounds at the time on Roman coins.  Matthew's story was and is dynamite, because it says: 'no, the hope of the world isn't the Pax Romana – not the peace and stability of the Rome Empire based on Rome having the best equipped and best trained army the world had ever seen, the most sophisticated technologies of engineering and law and taxation – the hope of the world isn't the power of the United States or the economic myth of growth that is based on inequity between the developed world and the two-thirds world – the hope of the world and the foundation of shalom is the reality of God with us that we see revealed in Jesus Christ'.  This is a powerful and much-contested assertion – an assertion that many in our own time assume has run out of steam – and we do our own faith a disservice if we reduce Matthew's story to a cute fairy-tale of stars and camels and birthday presents.

Epiphany in fact is the 'adults'-only' version of the Christmas tale. Part of me wishes that in the Church we'd forget about Christmas – the ancient pagan festival of midwinter that only relatively recently – in the fourth century – became associated with the birth of Jesus. Forget about Christmas – leave that to Santa and Myer and Harvey Norman and good luck to then – and proclaim Matthew's adults' only story of the Incarnation at Epiphany.

Yes, there is a children's version of Epiphany, and it goes like this. The astrologer kings bring precious gifts because they realise that the birth of this king changes everything, that the beauty of God revealed in the baby Jesus makes all our dreams and all our aspirations relative.  The astrologer-kings lay before the baby the symbols of their own earthly importance, and so should we.  What do you most treasure? What is actually most important in your own life – measured for example by how much of your time you spend thinking about it?  What would it mean for you to actually hand over that part of your life to Jesus, to actually put Jesus ahead of your own most treasured dreams and possessions?  What would change for you if you did?  It's not a bad message, and heaps of Epiphany sermons leave it there, so if you go home today wondering what the astrologers' camel-journey through the desert tells you about your own priorities that is not a bad start.

But the adult version is this.  There is a darker streak to Matthew's tale of the travelling astrologers that gets lost in the tinsel, a note of fear and opposition that surrounds Jesus birth right from the start.  The gift of myrrh alone should tip us off – the costly embalming spice that Nicodemus donates after Jesus' crucifixion is one of the gifts at his birth!  This king is going to attract some powerful opposition.  But it isn't just symbolic – Herod, the local ruler to whom the magi really have to pay a quick visit if they want to avoid an international incident – Herod isn't entirely overjoyed at their news, nor does he immediately go out shopping for Christmas presents for baby Jesus.

And not just Herod, but 'all Jerusalem' is – afraid!  Why? Because the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to stay in power. Herod and his court no longer model themselves on the kind of servant leadership that Israel's prophets have consistently preached about. They have long since forgotten the tradition that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod's main aim is to stay in power, and so he is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another – and therefore rival – king.

But perhaps it's also that the arrival of the magi and their quest for God's messiah announces that the world is changing, that God has come near, and that nothing can ever be the same again. The arrival of these wandering – and wondering - astrologers signals that the reach of God's embrace has just got wider, that there is no longer "insider" and "outsider," but that all human beings are included in God's plan for salvation. This isn't a new theme in Judaism, in fact from the very beginning of the story God promises to bless Abraham so that he, in turn, may be a blessing for the pagan peoples he encounters. But now it is happening – all distinctions between people of different ethnicities and religions are dissolving.  

Fear, of course, is a powerful emotion.  In response to their fear, Herod, along with the ruling elites in Jerusalem, conspire to find the child and kill him.  The slaughter of the innocents around Bethlehem sends shudders down our spines even today – because it rings true to our own dark experiences in the world we live in – the realities of ethnic cleansing and drone strikes and car bombings and massacres of children in their classrooms – all products of fear and the demonic human impulse to enact fantasies of power.

The slaughter of the innocents is a kind of prequel in Matthew's story, another dark reminder of the future opposition that Jesus' testimony to the loving purposes of God will attract. A reminder that if Jesus' life begins with joy and hope it will end encircled by the fear that is always the result of exposing the contradictions between human insecurity and divine love.

The adult version of Matthew's nativity moves quickly from the glad moment of the adoration and gifts of the magi to a darker, more ambivalent world of political intrigue, deception, and fear-induced violence.  But if Matthew's version is more sober, it is also realistic and ultimately liberating.  Because we also live in a world riddled by fear. In Matthew's story of the visit of the magi – and the subsequent slaughter of the innocents – holds up a disturbing mirror of the world as it is – and of ourselves as we are.

And this is what is at the heart of Matthew's darker, grown-up story of the nativity: the promise that it is precisely this world that God came to, this world so diminished by fear that God loves, this gaping need that we have that God remedies. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ's resurrection we, too might experience newness of life.

What gifts do you have that you can lay before the baby Jesus?  Not just the gold and the frankincense – what burden of myrrh do you bring?  What unshareable secret, what paralysing fear, what ancient failure, what destructive fantasies, what paralysing self-loathing do you carry that might be transformed by the grown-up message of the Incarnation that both in our darkness and in our light, God desires and loves us just as we are?