PUZZLING JOURNEY Matthew 2:1-12
In your mind flick through the Christmas Cards which have decorated your homes. I’m sure there were several bearing a picture of wise men making their lonely way across the desert led by a star. Kings laying their gifts before the baby in the manger. Camels sharing the world's silence while Jesus lies cradled in straw. Pictures like that have been with us since childhood.
Has it ever crossed your mind that this story is one of suspense, of fear, and of high anxiety? The long years of Christian devotion have emptied it of its true content and left us with happy pictures on Christmas cards and perhaps no more than that. But we cannot afford the loss. We must open ourselves to the tension lying along the backbone of this story.
It was terrifying for Mary. For the last seven or eight months she had been the victim of whispers from behind the lace curtains of Nazareth. "Always such a nice girl", they said to one another, "and now look at her. A baby on the way and not married!" Mary had been able to cope with the gossips. When she told her story of the messenger, the gossips had wagged their heads and said, "Yes, dear" with their lips, and "No, dear" with their eyes. She had expected that. But when Joseph had done the same, it had nearly broken her. But at last he was convinced, and so they could face the world together.
But just when her baby was due, there had been the summons from the civil service, a hurried scraping together of a few bits and pieces for the journey, and a trek from one town to another. Every jolt of the journey had shaken right through her and she had ended up in a reeking byre giving birth to her child. Exhausted, she lay in the straw, drained of energy; reaction had set in, and depression struggled with the joy she felt over her new baby.
Then terror leapt to the forefront of her mind once more. The doorway of the cattle shed darkened and a group of shepherds stood there muttering. Exhausted as she was, Mary took her baby in her arms, ready to protect him at all costs. Mary, of course, had never seen any Christmas cards. All she knew was that shepherds had come and shepherds were dangerous. Shepherds lived on the edge of decent society. They knew how to move silently, snatch a purse and melt quietly back into the hill country. Decent townsfolk went in fear of shepherds.
But the crisis passed. Amazingly, they had an embarrassing story of heavenly messengers to tell. Mary relaxed. She knew how hard it was to tell a tale like that. The fear relaxed, they were held together in a strange peace; the barriers between them, normally so strong, melted away around this baby's cradle.
But terror lurked in the shadows still. Later, new visitors arrived, unannounced. Men the like of whom Mary and Joseph had never seen before pushed into the stable. They were wearing clothes which looked, literally, outlandish. They spoke a language which was gibberish to decent Jewish ears. They were plainly pagan, precisely the kind of person that obedient Jews were instructed to avoid. What were they doing here, what did they want?
They gave the little child gifts which Mary didn't understand and with which the baby could not possibly play.
They seemed as puzzled as Mary by what was happening, yet held in their puzzlement by the same sense of being caught up in a purpose that was greater than their suspicion of each other. It was that which opened the door of understanding between them. The reserve and anxiety which held them apart melted away around this baby's cradle.
The visitors left. Mary hoped that she and the baby would soon be strong enough to leave Bethlehem and go back home. But it was not to be. Word came that Herod's soldiers were on the move. Sword in hand they were going from house to house bent on the slaughter of a generation. The alternatives were flight or the death of the child. There was no alternative. In a fumbling of haste and fear the donkey was loaded and a silent, secret escape made south and west.
Far from being a beautiful memory, these weeks haunted Mary. She would wake up at night, shivering as she dreamed about them.
Out of this we have made our Christmas cards and pretty stories.
It is this tale of terror which lies behind our carols about 'Peace on Earth towards people of goodwill'. Have we made a mistake? Have we subtly transmuted this terrible time into a fairy story for our comfort? Perhaps we have.
We stand two thousand years away from those days and we can see things in perspective. There is no doubt that the terror was there, and that Joseph and Mary were right to feel themselves in mortal danger - a danger being repeated for tens of thousands of migrants in today’s world.
But the pain was but the birth pangs of the new order which Jesus was bringing.
Let us turn back again to the Epiphany story, the story of the wise men, and see the way in which the terror which accompanied their coming blossomed into an awareness that a new era had begun.
The cause of Mary's fear, when she saw these strange figures at the door of the stable, was that they were foreigners, they were different. Taught from childhood to keep herself distant from such people, to retain religious and ethnic purity, her emotions marshalled to the defence when the wise men came in.
But, as yet unrealised by Mary, she was caught up in the stream of ancient promises which included the expectation that God's blessings should embrace all the people of the earth. That stream was now at full flood, and old barriers began to give way.
To Mary, who all her days had been sheltering behind the old religious and racial barriers, that was a fearful experience. But it was the beginning of hope for the world.
Look around the global Church now. We are men and women of every race and nation; we are living proof that this fear of Mary's was but the birth pangs of a larger hope. The wise men were the first of the Gentiles to gather around the Christ. We are their heirs today. The stream of grace has flowed widely enough to reach even us and we have cause to be thankful.
Then, secondly, Mary's fear sprang from her realisation that these men were men of rank. The gospel merely says that they were Wise Men or Magi. That is, leaders of forbidden religions who practised magic and sought to foretell the future. In our fancy we have given them crowns to wear and camels to ride. At this point our tradition has been coloured by the words of Isaiah which the coming of the wise men is said to have fulfilled:
'Kings shall come to the brightness of thy rising ...
the multitude of camels shall cover thy land ... they shall bring gold and frankincense.’ Isaiah 60:3, 6.
But these are matters which can hardly have concerned Mary. All that was plain to her was that these were men of commanding appearance, the kind of men who had always spelled a threat to the ordinary folk among whom she belonged. She was afraid.
Yet these men offered her and her child no harm. They provided valuable gifts for the baby. Mary was amazed. Her fear vanished and so it has been all along the centuries since that day. In Mary’s son people of seemingly no significance have discovered their true worth, found themselves to be loved and so have had significance beyond limit bestowed upon them.
But Jesus draws the powerful to him also and the mighty discover that although they may hold much power, it is power, for the use of which, they are obliged to give an answer. They are themselves men and women under authority and are no longer a law unto themselves. It is no chance that so many of the beneficial reforms of society have grown at times when people have been deeply aware of the authority of Jesus – not always the authority of the church – but the authority of Jesus.
The peacemaking, which began at Bethlehem has continued through long centuries until today. We are heirs of a rich tradition - not to be hoarded but to be shared, to be lived in this unpeaceful world.
So maybe we can live with an easy mind about our Christmas cards after all. The happy peace and familiar comfort which they speak to us at this season is no misstatement of the truth.
In its beginnings that truth made Mary afraid - it was so different, and so much more wide-reaching than she could ever imagine. But in the end, Mary's terror has proved to be the door to the possibility of peace and joy to the world.
William Mounsey Epiphany 2021