“An Improbable and Ridiculous Story”
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
Here we are basking in the final glow of Christmas as we welcome the Wise Men from the east who have come to offer gifts, not to the sitting ruler of the land King Herod, but to a baby. In an article about Epiphany that appeared in yesterday’s edition of USA Today1 we are told of a multitude of customs around this feast day:
In some places, the day is known as “Three Kings Day”… In other places, [Epiphany] is known for giving gifts [all over again], for extremely cold baths and for biting into babies… In Spain, children leave their shoes outside in the hopes they will be filled with candy and presents if the youngsters have been good. Naughty ones are told they’ll get only clumps of coal…In Italy, children receive gifts on Epiphany morning from a witch known as “La Befana.” The story goes that the wise men visited an old woman when they were looking for Jesus and invited her to come along. She was too busy. Then the shepherds stopped at her shack and extended their invitation. “Sorry, too busy!” she said. Since then, [La Befana] flies through the air in search of the Christ child, leaving gifts for other good children in her search. Meanwhile, Venetian gondoliers mark the day by dressing in drag and cruising down the Grand Canal…
In some countries the custom is to bake a king’s ring cake containing tiny figurine of a baby baked into the dough. The idea is that the baby will be revealed in a slice or a bite of bread, just as Jesus was revealed as the Son of God to the kings.
The article reminds us that:
The Bible isn’t exactly a timetable. In fact, the Bible says nothing about the number of kings, their robes, turbans or crowns [worn] in every Christmas pageant in the world, nor does it say they rode on camels or how they learned the star would lead them to a baby in Bethlehem. People have just filled in all those blanks since Epiphany became a church feast in the second century, making it one of the oldest of Christian celebrations.
However we view the story, Epiphany is an important part of our larger faith story. We are now panning out to take a wider view of the Incarnation, of God becoming flesh and blood like us… a story that began with pregnant expectation in Advent, and was later adorned with an angelic chorus singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” but a story that is not neatly tied up, complete, or frozen in a barnyard scene of two adoring parents and curious shepherds gazing at the holy child. The story enacted in pageants conflates the most detailed story of Jesus’ birth that we hear in Luke, with the story of the wise men that we hear about only in the Gospel according to Matthew. The kings or magi (from which the word “magician” is derived) arrive at a “house”…not a stable.. sometime after the birth. The men are also considered to have been astrologers, the scientists of their day. Though the story mentions three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, we are not actually told how many wise men arrived for the visit. It mayhave been two, it may have been thirty or more. And there is some scholarly debate about whether or not Matthew’s contribution to the Christmas story was historical fact at all. Whether actual fact or not, this story illustrates the cosmic importance of Christ’s birth for all people, for those who are near and for those who come from afar.
Tradition tells us that the Magi’s names were Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. The traditional gifts were fit… not for a baby… but for a king. Gold is an obvious gift. The other, two gifts are a bit more obscure, frankincense symbolizing ritual holiness and prayer, and myrrh the oil for anointing in death, embalming oil, a possible symbol of suffering. These are the gifts described in Matthew’s account of the visitation and adoration of the wise men from the east. You may have heard the joke about the visitation of three wise women, rather than three wise men. The three would have asked directions instead of taking their time following a star and arriving well after the birth. The women would have arrived on time and would have helped Mary deliver the baby. They would have cleaned the stable and brought practical gifts such as diapers and blankets, and, of course, they would have thought to bring a hot homemade casserole. …a delightful play on the Epiphany story.
But the larger Christmas story includes a shadow side that takes some wrenching turns. The story includes the bloodbath that is known as the “slaughter of the innocents” when a paranoid King Herod sought to eliminate a rival king by ordering that all children, under the age of two, in and around Bethlehem, be put to death. Herod had tried to get information from the wise men about the location of the holy child. The Wise Men chose, however, not to comply with the king’s request, and quietly left town by “another road.” This was a powerful action that allowed for the holy family to escape to Egypt and return at a later date. There is some thought that this aspect of the story helps to align the Jesus story with that of Moses who led the people of Israel out of bondage in the land of Egypt. It is an “improbable and ridiculous story.” To quote Marcus Borg: “When I read a story like this I can say, “I don’t know if it actually happened this way … but this story is true.”2 The Christmas story is one of wonder and mystery. It includes joy, death and the flight of a refugee family to a foreign land.
The whole of the Gospel story is meant to turn the earthly understanding of power on its head. The king who has been born to us is to be anointed with the oil of death. This is an “improbable and ridiculous story” … and there is a spoiler alert. To quote the beloved hosts of the weekly “Pulpit Fiction”3 podcast pastors Rob McCoy and Eric Fistler: “the story is only going to get more absurd from here.”
- the poor will be blessed,
- the last will be first
- and the son of God will be nailed to a cross.
Epiphany blessings to you all…
2 Marcus Borg quoting an unknown source.