Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
The two displaced Middle Eastern teenagers finally found a shelter to rest and deliver the babe who the angels sang about. It’s a story told and retold every year across the world and celebrated in nativity scenes in churches and homes however Mathew’s Gospel story is more than the birth narrative; it is a story about power and wealth, oppression and peace. The birth of this newborn king, this messiah was foretold long before the angels by the psalmists, “May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helpers (Psalm 72: 11-12). It was announced to the ingathering of the dispersed, the exiled Jews, “ “Arise, shine: for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” says the prophet Isaiah.
This Sunday we are celebrating the coming of this light into the world beyond the manger and the arrival of the Wise Ones who traveled from afar. Let us explore what our traditions have told us about who they were and what they brought. Let us also explore who they might have been and also the stories about the others who wanted to come or who did not make it in time or got delayed. And finally, let us reflect on what this all means in a world of genocides and the ongoing killing of children, of demonization of foreigners and refugees. What does it mean to celebrate life and hope when there is so much death?
Before we get into the violence connected with the epiphany story let us look more carefully at some of the other popular myths and legends about who these Wise Ones might have been.
I was fortunate enough to grow up being read to. Part of my family’s holiday tradition was reading from a book of Christmas stories from around the world. It included stories about the Cardinal St. Nicholas (yes, the one from Beit Jala) who threw bags of gold into the window of the house of a poor family who didn’t have enough money for their daughters to get married. This good- hearted white bearded fat man in his red cloak looked a lot like Santa Claus; in fact this is who he became.
Another was the story about an old Russian woman called Babushka who lived alone in the woods and often stayed there close to her fire. One wintery night she was visited by three wise men that entered her house and invited her to travel with them to seek the child. She did not want to leave her warm fire however, so they continued on without her. Later she could not sleep and kept thinking about this child. In the morning she decided to go find him so packed a bag full of toys. She forgot to ask the way so traveled up and down many roads. She traveled for many years. In Europe she comes on the eve of Christmas with her bag of toys and enters each house when the children are sleeping. She looks into their faces wondering if this is the child and then leaves a gift from her endless bag of toys. Needless to say, I wanted her to come to America and find my sweet face worthy of a gift.
Later when I could read chapter books we read about the Other Wiseman, the fourth Wiseman. He is the one who got lost because he kept helping people along the way. He searched for the Christ all of his life and finally found him when he was on the cross. When he arrived he apologized for not getting there sooner and explained all the things he had done along the way. Jesus said something along these lines, “You are not late. I was that old woman you helped. I was that little boy you fed. I was that girl you clothed.”
These stories along with the Gospel helped shape my understanding about the importance of gift giving and who these Wise Ones might have been.
Now skip to years later, I am a woman about to be ordained so I choose Epiphany Sunday because it is the Sunday we celebrate either the coming of the Wise Ones or the baptism of Jesus. Both stories are about how we come to recognize Him as the one. Both are about the light being seen by all. A good way to honor and start my call to ordained ministry.
After a few years, I come across a gifted artist and poet, Jan Richardson, who tells another story about who these Wise Ones might have been. And once I heard her poem I knew beyond the funny jokes of if they had been women they wouldn’t have gotten lost or would have brought practical gifts like diapers or casseroles that of course there had to have been women; women have always attended births and of course they must have been wise enough and foolish enough to follow the light. Here is the poem she wrote which is also the inspiration for the YWCA’s project on women’s leadership named after her poem, The Wise Women Also Came.
Wise women also came
The fire burned
in their wombs
long before they saw
the flaming star
in the sky.
They walked in shadows,
trusting the path
under the light of the moon.
Wise women also came,
seeking no directions,
from any king.
They came by their own authority,
their own desire, their own longing.
They came in quiet,
spreading no rumors,
sparking no fears
to lead to innocents’ slaughter,
to their sister Rachel’s
Wise women also came,
and they brought
water for labor’s washing,
fire for warm illumination,
a blanket for swaddling.
Wise women also came,
at least three of them,
holding Mary in the labor,
crying out with her in the birth pangs,
breathing ancient blessings into her ear.
Wise women also came,
and they went,
as wise women always do,
home a different way.
All of these stories give depth to what it means to seek the child, to offer gifts, to travel another way home. As much as I love these stories I find living here that I must return to the Gospel itself for guidance, to Mathew who shines the light of the star not only on the birth but also death, twin destinies for this child who is the Christ. Herod, that missing figure from the crèche is also part of this story. The Holy Family fleeing from terror from Bethlehem is also part of the story. Living here I understand why we can’t skip over these details and only focus on the gifts or the light.
The Roman occupation is ever present in this Gospel according to Matthew, detailing how the Jews were made refugees in their own land, how some accommodated to protect themselves and profit like the Herodians while others resorted to violent resistance like the zealots. This Imperial Roman occupation is remarkably similar to this Israeli occupation that we are living in now. Jesus’ birth was both a joy and a threat and it still is. This is why one commentator noted that those medicinal and funeral herbs the Magi brought were not only gifts suitable for royalty but also gifts that could be sold in exchange for food and shelter, or safe passage out.
But there is another interpretation about these Magi and their gifts worth exploring from Laurel Dystra in her essay The Disturbing Gift. She says, “Their real gift is a warning. While the Magi return oblivious and unscarred to their own country by another route; the family they honored flees as refugees; and their neighbor’s children are slaughtered. When the privileged seek salvation in the places of power, the consequences for the vulnerable and oppressed are brutal and often unseen.”
What is their warning for us the privileged of today as we sit here in Jerusalem, less than 10 miles from Bethlehem whose bells are ringing out ”the joy, the existence, and the danger” as Mayor Vera Baboun so eloquently put it. How does our seeking salvation lead to the slaughter of children or have consequences for those most vulnerable? These are the pressing questions I have now.
The Wise Ones remind us that this birth, God becoming incarnate, is something to celebrate, bow down to and offer what you have. They remind us that gift giving is receiving. They remind us that pilgrimage takes courage and has unexpected consequences when our salvation rests in the hands of the most vulnerable. They also remind us that wisdom can be found in strangers, foreigners, even women.
Lastly, the holy family’s flight into Egypt reminds us that they were refugees fleeing violence and persecution not unlike refugees fleeing to our shores today.
So I invite you this Epiphany Sunday to not only seek Jesus in all the children you see or in all those who are needy or vulnerable or in all the demented inns of the world, but seek him in those whose lives are in danger today; washing up on a seashore, returning home in a coffin, being shot at a checkpoint or a busy city street. And remember that you may have found him by setting your compass to that North Star; the way home back requires another route and lies in shadows and the dark. But this is Ok because if you have made your imperfect offering, your cracks will let the light in and you will be a light and offer light to others. And you will guide each other.
Loren McGrail serves with the YWCA of Palestine. She helps identify international partners, and relevant sources of funding.