December 31, 2017: Christmas I/Epiphany
Lessons & Carols
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Merry Christmas! I don’t think I have preached on the Sunday after Christmas since….
Because of this year’s crazy liturgical calendar, this Sunday, like last Sunday, serves two distinct liturgical observances. Last Sunday was both Advent IV and Christmas Eve. This Sunday is both Christmas I and Epiphany Sunday. And so we are meant to celebrate both the arc of our salvation history, which is typically the focus for Christmas I, and the beauty and power and mystery of that star in the east, which is Epiphany. So let’s jump right in!
This morning we celebrate the coming of Christmas by reading together some of the central stories in our salvation history; the history of our life with God. These are some of the defining narratives that show us how God works with us; stories that show us what God expects of us; stories that show us what we can expect from God.
There is not a set group of stories that fit this bill. There is a fair amount of leeway in the rubric regarding which stories we choose to tell THE story. Which confirms, of course, that there is no one story that sums up our salvation history, but rather a whole album of family snapshots, all of which add a bit of information and color to the overall narrative.
And so thinking that we would have the time and attention for no more than a few slices of our life with God, I set about the rich and wonderful task of selecting what I thought were some of the top seedings, the best group of stories to tell our story. And I settled on the six we heard this morning. Believe me, there were many more that just barely missed the cut! But when I had to boil it down to what I consider to be the most telling lessons on this first Sunday in the season of the Incarnation, it was all about the way God calls us to work with God as agents and co-creators of this world…..the stories of those who were created and called by God to bring nothing less than their whole selves to participate in God’s good work.
It starts with God’s love for humanity, a love so deep that God etched God’s own image on our hearts. But it did not take humanity long, with our selfishness and our greed and our lack of concern for each other, to break God’s heart. And in almost no time at all, God was so sorry and so grieved to have created us, that God resorted to a divine do-over; flooding the entire earth to wipe away all trace of the wickedness that had spread through the human race like wildfire.
But first, God made one ridiculously irrational call to an unsuspecting worker bee named Noah, whom God instructed to build an ark to preserve a remnant of God’s good work; an arc that would ultimately salvage the whole of God’s own creation from God’s own destruction. Because as it turned out, God was sorry to have reacted with such devastating anger, and so God offered a sign in the rainbow of God’s steadfast promise to all creation never to do that again.
And then, not three chapters later in the Book of Genesis, God posits another steep request to another ordinary companion named Abraham. And with that call comes another covenant, another massive promise to all humanity from that time forth. And so Abraham along with companions Hagar and Sarah, is called to trust God above all, and then to plant seeds that will multiply and bless every generation of descendants forevermore.
And then there is Mary – there is no more audacious and inclusive call in our scripture than God’s request of Mary, and too to Joseph; it is a call that changes the prospects of human kind forever more. A call that is lived out in the flesh of a Saviour who is born in the stench of a stable with not an advantage to ki’s name – God’s own flesh and blood working in and through this world without a shred of political , economic, or social status, no power or position whatsoever. The perfect example of what God had intended of humanity, of all of us, from the very beginning when God etched God’s imagine on the human heart. That we might come into this world with nothing but love to signal our status.
And finally, the star, the Epiphany.
The Magi set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,* until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
The miracle of the virgin birth in Luke is matched almost by the magic of the star in Matthew. Shining in the East. The mystical sign of a promise. So deep so enduring so enlightening, that we tell the story 2000 years hence.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house they saw the child with Mary, the mother, and they knelt down and paid homage.
We sometimes call Matthew’s version of this story one of the two birth narratives in our scripture, but Matthew tells more of an appearance than a birth. Matthew’s big contribution to our beloved nativity story is the star in the East and the wise ones who have been sent by Herod on a sort of reconnaissance trip. Wise Ones who, in order to conceal the child’s whereabouts, wisely return home by another way. This, says Matthew, is told “so that what has been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled.”
Luke might be all about writing a new history altogether, but Matthew is all about fulfilling the scripture….the Hebrew scripture.
And so it is not surprising that Matthew picked up almost this entire passage from this morning’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, from Isaiah, chapter 60: Arise, shine for your light has come, etc. The whole passage, picked up nearly verbatim. ”Picked up” a euphemism for biblical plagiarism really. If Matthew had handed this story in in high school, ki would likely have been suspended for plagiarism.
But Matthew ‘s explanation is that this story is told so that what has been spoken through the prophets will be fulfilled. Not exactly the thorough footnote we would expect from such a….revered source, but the point here is that Matthew is all about the fulfillment of scripture. According to Matthew, Jesus does not supersede scripture, does not supplant the story in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus is not the replacement for the old tired testament, Jesus is the fulfillment of the story, the expected rest of the story.
And so Matthew tells that story, Isaiah’s story, to a tee; well, almost to tee. Matthew adds one small detail that changes…..everything.
Isaiah says that the ones who will follow the light will come by camels bearing gifts. They will bring gold and frankincense….and so says Matthew as well. Except, Matthew adds to the gift list because Isaiah does not mention myrrh. Matthew adds myrrh. And why does Matthew add myrrh? Why lift the scripture almost exactly and then add this curious gift? Gold is the gift for royalty. Check. Frankincense is the hallmark of one who is to be worshiped. Check. But myrrh is…. an embalming herb. It is what was used to anoint Jesus’ body after death. It’s not exactly on the top ten list of perfect gifts for Christmas, especially for a child, a new born baby. In fact, those of you who remember the Monty Python film The Life of Brian will recall that when the wise ones visit the baby Brian, the child’s mother is delighted with the gold and frankincense, but spends the next ten minutes of the movie trying to return the myrrh. What kind of gift is myrrh for a newborn babe?!
Well….it’s the kind of gift that says that this is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill child. It’s the kind of gift that emphasizes death at birth; that says that the death of this child will be as significant as ki’s birth.
Myrrh is Matthew’s equivalent of the humble manger in terms of what we can expect from this strange birth, in terms of turning the expectations of the world on their heads. The star is the part of Matthew’s story that we tend to embrace. But it is the myrrh, that is the punch line. The part we don’t see coming. This king whose birth is heralded by nothing less than a star is going to defeat the enemy not by star wars, but by…..dying…..a painful and shameful death. By dying a criminal’s death. The likes of a traitor to the empire in between two thieves. This is the punch line that awaits the story that we begin to tell in the bright shining light of this star this blessed season.
It’s easy to forget. With all of the tinsel and mistletoe….all of the bright and shining wrapping paper and bows….all of the gift giving and happy holidaying….it is easy to look no further than the star.
In that star we often lose ourselves in the hope of our own calling. We take this season to be a fresh start, a fresh invitation to follow the star that calls us to God. It is almost the relevant theme of the season leading us into the new year. How is the star in the east calling us forward? Sometimes, I think, we are maybe a little too worried about where we are being called. I know I am. Where does God want me to go? How will I get there? How will I know I am on the right path? I am often so busy looking for that star and the coordinates of my destination that sometimes, much of the time, I get distracted.
Because it easy for the star to distract us from the sobering depth of the gifts that we are called to bear. And so we worry about where the star is taking us rather than what we are willing to bring? But the prophets of old, Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Mary worried not about where they were going, only about what they would bring. Not about where they were called, but what they might bear in God’s name.
Likewise, the Wise Ones fretted not about where they were going, where they were called. Their agency and attention was firmly planted on the gifts that they would offer to God. (pause) They are calling us now. They are calling us, you and me, to follow that star in our own footsteps. This morning’s Gospel from Matthew tells us that the question this season for each of us is not where are we going in the new year, but what gifts will we bring?
What gifts will you bring? What will the new birth awaiting your journey require? What constitutes your gold? Your frankincense? Your myrrh? And make no mistake, myrrh will be required. If your calling is from God, you had better be prepared to pack the myrrh, because this journey is going to cost you, as does every true calling from God. And so everything you have, everything you are, everything you count on will be needed.
The one thing you do not need to worry about, is where you going. The star will lead you to the exact spot. It may take longer than you anticipated. It may take you over unfamiliar and inhospitable terrain. It may seem lost for a bit in the cover of clouds. But it will never leave you, and it will take you precisely where you need to go.
In the meantime, we will break bread together on our knees and celebrate this season of hope that is , if Matthew’s Gospel is to be believed: a Myrrhy Christmas.
© December, 2017, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw