In these last days of Christmas (even before the U.S. bombed Iran) I find myself wondering how many of us actually made the spiritual journey to Bethlehem. We spend the weeks before Christmas preparing for God coming into the world anew. We talk about it. We have special Advent studies and discussion groups. We gear our worship around preparing the way for God. We have pageants and caroling and gifts for those in need. Then Christmas happens and we forget that there are twelve days in the season. Twelve days to linger in Bethlehem asking ourselves what gifts we bring and what gifts we receive during this sacred season. On the brink of Epiphany, I wonder what new knowledge, new insight, new understandings have we gained? Are we literally seeing what might be right in front of us?
I don’t think we are. Some of us think the Bible has nothing to say to us today and others are still insisting the Bible gives us the facts of how Jesus came into the world. You know, Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary. Moreover, he was born in a stable, lain in a manger, and the animals kept them all company because there was no room at the inn. There were angel appearances and prophetic dreams. We combine Matthew and Luke just so we can tell the story in a way fit for children to enact. When we insist the Bible is factual, we forget to ask why the stories are there. What spiritual truth do they point toward? What lesson might I learn from them? Yes, with God all things are possible so all the things could have happened exactly as they are written. However, life is seldom so neat and tidy as Bible stories might indicate. And so much is left out.
Think about the Magi who will soon arrive. Why would this story have been included in Matthew’s Gospel? Tradition tells us that there were three based on the three gifts named – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – and they came from outside of Israel. Maybe a group of scholars did actually travel from the East seeking an explanation for an astronomical event. Maybe the Magi signify something about Jesus’ importance near and far, within Israel and around the world. Maybe they also tell us something about what it means to make the journey to Bethlehem, something worth attending to.
These Magi traveled some distance and over many months, if not years. They brought gifts worthy of a king, possibly with more significance than that. They recognized something holy in the child. They experienced joy. They were also the recipients of one of those prophetic dreams; they were not to go back to Herod. They returned to their home country by a route that led them away from Herod. They were changed – by their travels, by encountering Herod, by being in Jesus’ presence, by prophetic dreams. What really made them go home by a different road?
This “home by another road” has always stood out to me. Maybe more so this year than in previous years because there is something to this. The Magi encountered fear and hatred in Herod and then Divine Love in Jesus. In response, they made a choice not to engage with fear and hatred again. This is the power of this story, at least it is in this moment.
I stumbled through Advent this year, lagging behind emotionally, spiritually, and physically. On the second day of Advent I got a pacemaker. Someone literally touched my heart and my heart did not respond well. I had repeated atrial fibrillation every time the doctor tried to attach the lead to my heart. Apparently this went on for nearly thirty minutes. Eventually, with repeated chemical cardioversion, my heart stabilized and the lead was attached. However, I am unsettled by it. Partly because it happened at all (I was not aware at the time, of course), though mostly because it is rather symbolic of how I have lived my life. I guard my heart and don’t react in any typical fashion when someone figuratively touches it. This all made my Advent journey rather complicated. Now it occurs to me that many of us guard our hearts, even from God.
We might navigate through Advent and make it to Bethlehem in time for the birth. We might even travel far like the Magi. However, when we get to the familiar manger seen, do we let it touch us in new ways? Are we at all open to God breaking into our lives, into the world once more? I suspect that I am not alone in reacting poorly to my heart being touched. Maybe this is why we have not learned the lesson of the Magi, we have not learned to return home by another road that does not engage with fear and hatred.
Since I received my pacemaker, my heart has beat steadily and my emotions have been all over the place. I’ve been cranky and impatient (mostly with myself because there are physical limitations) and I’ve been much more easily moved to tears. I find displays of generosity and concern bring tears to my eyes before I even register what I am witnessing or experiencing. A steady beat seems to indicate that my heart is less guarded.
My prayer for this New Year and, especially, this Epiphany Season, is for all of us to allow ourselves to be changed by Love that is always with us and for all of our hearts to be less guarded. The time has come for all of us to choose a road that does not engage with fear and hatred.
RCL – Year A – Epiphany – January 5, 2020
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14