The longer I reflect on The Epiphany of Our Lord (or The Theophany, as it is called by our Orthodox brothers and sisters, or the “manifestation,” as some translate “epiphany”) the more confused I get about how Christianity has degenerated for many into the private (as opposed to personal), me-and-God, quietistic concern for individual salvation that it has become for arguably most Christians. The events of the Epiphany make it abundantly clear, it seems to me, that the Advent of Our God (as it is called in LBW hymn 22) is an undeniably political, cultural, and economic thing. And to argue otherwise (as we tend to do with our standard Christmas devotion) is both to undervalue what God has done and completely to misunderstand what He has done.
Ethicist Larry Rassmussen has a helpful little article in the January issue of The Lutheran, the ELCA’s in-house magazine. In part, he indicts Christians for redacting the Christmas and Epiphany stories to exclude the uncomfortable elements of the slaughter of the holy innocents. And he’s right to do so.
In the liturgical churches, we mark certain events in the life of Our Lord as special revelations into the nature and significance of the birth of Jesus. (In contrast to the Western Church, the Eastern Church downplays the Nativity in favor of a full-blown celebration of the Theophany – literally, “god appearance.” The West prefers the more romantic focus on Bethlehem.) Included in the liturgical readings of the Nativity-Epiphany structure are the visit of the magi (or wise men), the Baptism of Jesus, the wedding at Cana. Often overlooked (because they don’t often fall on Sundays when the community gathers) are such events as the reaction of Herod to being outwitted by the magi, the slaughter of the under-2-year-old boys, the fleeing of the Holy Family, and the martyrdom of Stephen (curiously placed within the Christmas-Epiphany cycle, this non-Jesus story is clearly intended to say something important).
Now, as much as I may suggest that I am a liturgical expert, I claim no special expertise – only passion – on the subject. So I can’t say how this liturgical pattern developed. But certain features seem unmistakable – except to the vast majority of preachers, I guess. (I’ll only deal with some of the events I’ve highlighted. I acknowledge the rhetorical weakness of raising issues that I don’t deal with, but I want to leave you some room to fill in some blanks in your own way.)
Of foremost significance, it seems to me, is the political significance of the arrival of God in human flesh. Jesus’ birth attracts, not just Jews who were looking for their Messiah (in fact, not many of them showed much interest at first, according to the Bible), but Herod, the king of the region. For Herod, Jesus’ birth represented a challenge to his rule, the potential for insurrection. And so to eliminate that threat, when he couldn’t find the individual traitor because the magi broke their assurance to return, he exercised the “nuclear option” and ordered the murder of the entire population of “innocents,” expecting to wipe out Jesus in the total destruction, causing wailing to rival that in Egypt at the time of the Passover.
Now, I know that Herod is often understood to misunderstand what Jesus was all about. After all, didn’t Jesus later tell Pilate that his kingdom is “not of this world.” But that seems to deny the evidence. For one thing, Jesus only says that in John’s Gospel, which is not known for its historical interest. And for another, despite his not intending to set himself up as king as the world understands kings, he never denies that his appearance sets in play a whole new politics, what John Howard Yoder has called “The Politics of Jesus.” Jesus did in fact come to overthrow the powers of the globe, and because of him, those powers would no longer be able claim either allegiance from or control over the followers of Jesus. No longer would people be subject to the dictates or constraints of artificially drawn “national” boundaries, of rulers within and over those “nations,” of threats of imprisonment or death.
It’s ironic, but Herod was right: Jesus’ claims would ultimately topple him. And he was justified in fearing the loss of his power and prestige. The terror he inflicted in order to preserve his slipping grasp on power is typical of failing despots in every age, who perpetrate terror in order to maintain power in the face of challenge from a greater Power.
That the Holy Family was forced to retreat – and to retreat to Egypt, of all places! – fits this theme. When centuries before, the people of God went into exile in Egypt, it was for their protection. When they were eventually called out of Egypt, it was to be established as the people of The Lord. They were a religious and political entity established, not to overthrow the rest of world (its kingdoms, satrapies, and dominions), but with providing witness, by their very existence and the way they lived out that existence, to the new reality in the world which was The Lord’s rule. (That they misunderstood their “place” and function and importance explains all their various turmoil and exiles. But that’s for another discussion.) By their witness, example, and presence, the structures of the world would be transformed in fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham – viz., that by his descendants all the nations of the world would “bless themselves.”
When Jesus’ parents brought him back from Egypt, they recapitulated the Exodus: Jesus came out of exile in order to establish a people who would, by their presence in the world, transform the worldly powers and principalities. As his Father taught his new People at Sinai, the Son would eventually teach his People on the mount (or the plain). Instilling in them, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, their new identity as the People of God, he fashioned for himself a people to be the presence of God in the world. And the powers continue to quake – and rightly so.
But “rightly so” only if the people of God hew to their identity and mission.
We are lured away from that by our so-called “traditional” observances of Christmas. Forget the “commercialization” of Christmas; there are more subtle lures. We focus on the sweet baby Jesus, with adoring shepherds come in from the field. We forget that the presence of the shepherds was grossly offensive: Not only did they stink, but they were commonly perceived as unclean and blasphemers – traveling around, as they did, through often barren and religiously mixed hillsides, where they might have consorted with who knows how many different pagans (and maybe Samaritans). We idolize the animals in the barn with carols, forgetting that the Lord of Life was forced to begin his life as an outcast, whose only company was livestock. And again, the smell was as bad as some homeless people’s sleeping areas. We thrill to “We Three Kings,” and ignore the difficulties of crossing borders in our age (not to mention borders “to the East”). We celebrate the star “up yonder,” forgetting about the disruption that meant in the cosmos.
We forget the smell, the threat, the cosmic disturbance – and in the process we de-politicize the Epiphany: Jesus was a baby and babies don’t practice politics – even when they die from starvation, abuse, HIV, and bombings. Jesus can be a capitalist, even if that means turning more people out into barns, to beg and scrape just to survive. Jesus can be a nationalist, even if that means Rachel must continue to wail over the deaths of her Iraqi innocents. Jesus can be oblivious, as long as we can sing “Silent Night” (I would love a Christmas without singing that song!) with candles in the safety of our beautifully appointed and now darkened churches, from which we have swept every suggestion of mold, mildew, and the detritus of society.
And in our forgetting, we blind ourselves to the Epiphany. We hide what was shown. We deny what has been said. We miss what we are to learn. And we return to Herod to invite him to go to Jesus and offer his gift.
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One last personal note: I once – and only once – preached on the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. I wanted to highlight the personal costs of discipleship (if you will) to those who are affected by the birth of the Messiah – that it’s not all sweet carols and romantic feelings. So I began the sermon, “Christmas is not for children.” From out the congregation came the voice of one three-year-old, “It is, too.” (An astute little girl to be listening to sermons at that age, eh?)