Christmas has come and gone for another year. The music that filled shopping malls and radio stations for weeks on end is hushed. Many have already stored away the decorations for another year, unless you’re lucky to party with the Ukrainians tomorrow. *
The world’s moving on, at lightning speed. But in the church we are only just beginning to live the story, the story of Mary and Joseph, of their newborn in a manger, of the angels and the shepherds. As the God of love entered our human existence in Jesus, another story began to flow from this holy birth. The Magi came from the east and began to ask questions: Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We have followed his rising star and we have come to give him honour. (Matthew 2:1–13)
King Herod, shaken by it all, convinced the Magi to help him locate the child. Indeed, the strange foreigners find the child. Overwhelmed, they fall on their knees in worship and praise and adoration. Like the shepherds on the hillside, they begin to realize that something new is happening, that a new world is being born: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, says Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love … (Ephesians 1:3–12)
It is a wonderful story, full of emotion and intrigue. Throughout the centuries it has inspired art and music, poetry and song, discipleship and saintly living. But somehow now, in this modern day and age, this star of the magi, and all that it signified for so long, seems to have lost its lustre. The particular ways we have understood God, the blessings that our Lord Jesus Christ bestowed on us, on the world and on the church, are breaking apart. Change is accelerating at a speed we hum ans have trouble following and processing, integrating and understanding. Political, economic, and climate crises succeed one another faster than dominoes can fall. The sets of meanings and values we have used to make sense of reality , the spiritual fuel that has inspired dreams and visions, are all crumbling like weeks-old, dried up cake. Against this backdrop, what do we make of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy about the light shining in the darkness of the world? Does the birth of Jesus and the peculiar story of the mysterious strangers, the magi coming from nowhere, from the east, still speak to the hunger of today’s seekers and spiritual wanderers? Can Christ Jesus still be God’s blessing on today’s world?
This month’s edition of the Anglican Journal is filled with the news of our diminishing church. What we already know as a reality here in Watrous is now officially verified by extensive sociological studies. The Christian church is fast becoming a mere shadow of its former glory and influence. And every Christian church family, including the RC Church, is affected by this monumental historical shift. As Pope Francis said this Christmas to the Roman Curia “what we are living through is not simply a time of change but a veritable change of a historical era.” Francis added that we can “live change by limiting ourselves, by putting on new clothes but remaining as we were before.” But, citing a popular Italian novelist, Francis said, “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”
Here on earth to live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect. (Saint JHN) This does not mean seeking change for change’s sake, or to follow the latest fashion, but rather, in Pope Francis’ words, “to have the conviction that development and growth are characteristic of earthly and human life, while, in the perspective of the believer, at the centre there remains the stability of God.” And this is hard for us humans, really hard. It’s hard, really hard, to see the divine hand in the decay and disintegration. Because if we humans are good at anything at all, it’s to be comfy in our own nest, curling up in a massive illusion of security. But this security turns out to be false, and risks setting limits on God and on our own freedom.
The Christian life, in reality, is a journey, a pilgrimage, not unlike those magi long ago, who left their comfy nest and security, to follow a bright light, spurring them on into a new discovery. The entire Biblical story is a journey, marked by starts and restarts. So it was for Abraham, for the people of Israel, for the shepherds and magi, and for all since the days 2,000 years ago in Galilee who set out to follow a peculiar itinerant preacher called Jesus. Since then, the people of God—the history of the church—has been marked by departures, moves, changes. The journey, obviously, is not linear or geographical, but above all it is symbolic and spiritual. The journey of the Christian life invites us to discover the movement of the heart that, paradoxically, needs to start afresh again and again in order to remain faithful and true. The mystery of God animating the human heart in every age is a mystery that requires change so as to remain faithful and alive, new and fresh.
The star … that star … as a guiding light … A light in the dark sky of life … an anchor, a compass … A light in darkness fuels motivation and hope. A light in the dark lightens our path us, revealing obstacles and traps. A guiding light attracts us and gives direction in the stream of life, revealing a goal to reach for. The star guided the magi from afar into a new path. Recall that Matthew tells us they returned via a different road. When we truly find the Divine guiding light that creates and animates, sustains and fuels hope-love-joy-peace-mercy we too continue life via a different road.
Hear again Isaiah’s clarion call:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:1–6)
Can Christ still be this light to the nations? While everything around us is changing at lightning speed, can the Christ-child still comfort and heal us, providing the foundation for love and mercy that stabilizes and accompanies us in the dark? Yes, even as the Christian church loses worldly influence, Christ Jesus himself retains that spiritual power. Christ Jesus is the same, always and everywhere for everyone. Jesus’ teaching and example can still help us discover and face obstacles, lighting the path that leads through the chaos of our times into God’s fullness and life. Christ Jesus can still bring meaning and value to human history, indeed to all creation, especially as we urgently need to face the many crises of our time – climate change, refugees and displaced peoples, economic disparity, illness and epidemics, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and an enormous crisis of meaning and purpose in the young.
Matthew shocked his readers right from the start. He writes women into Jesus’ genealogy, as we noted on the first Sunday of Advent. Now he features the magi, foreigners from faraway. Whoever they were and wherever they were from, Matthew’s point is that they are not from here; these are not our own kind, not the hometown folk, with hometown values, and hometown upbringing. These were odd folk from some foreign land – not our kind. And yet, it was these foreigners, these weird strange magi, who were instrumental in saving Jesus from being killed by the forces of evil, personified in King Herod.
It is thanks to these star-obsessed strangers that the message of universal salvation has come to us. In this stark and shocking way Matthew reminds us that the saving word of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus, is not for some, but for all, even still in our crisis-ridden time and place. Not for men only, but also for women, for the old and the young. Not for the apparently perfect only, but for those whose lives bear the scars of unspeakable human pain. Not for the hometown crowd only, but for those on the other side of the tracks. Not for those who believe exactly as we do, but also for those who are struggling to believe anything at all, or those who have lost their faith. Because as the crucified and risen Lord, Christ still goes before us in all things. So even in betrayal, suffering and death, the star, in the shape of the cross, shines brightly in the resurrection, the joy of Easter. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor surmised in this month’s Anglican Journal: the church may shrink but will survive in our secular age, but it will look very different from what we have known. Religion is not disappearing, but it is taking different forms.The young are definitely on a spiritual quest, according to Taylor, yet reluctant to join churches which claim to have all the answers.
In this year’s Christmas message from another church leader, Lutheran Bishop Larry (Alberta Synod) echoes both Pope Francis and Charles Taylor when he wrote: The star comes and rests over the place where the infant Jesus is born. Keep your eyes on it. Gaze at the star. Focus on it. Fix it firmly in your mind. Because in time you will discover that the points of the star will stretch themselves into the form of a cross; it will no longer rest over the place where the child lay, but will come to rest in a new way over our lives and in the world we inhabit. (post on Lutheran Theological Seminary FB page)
Pope Francis concluded his message to the Roman Curia with these words: “Christmas is the feast of the love of God for us. Divine love inspires, guides, and corrects all change, thus defeating the human fear of leaving the false security of the present and instead launching out into God’s eternal mystery of love.”
The real journey of Christmas is only just beginning. In this new decade, 2020, will we let God cast out human fear, will we grow the courage of the magi by leaving all false security, in order to creatively face the crises of our time and grow much-needed spiritual 20/20 vision? Don’t be afraid to follow the star, be open to wherever it might lead in this new year. AMEN
Homily preached on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 5, 2020
Isaiah 60:1—6; Ephesians 1:3—12; Matthew 2:1—12
- Special thanks to Lutheran Bishop Larry Kochendorfer from the ELCIC Alberta Synod for the initial inspiration to this sermon whose reflection was posted on the FB page of the Lutheran Theological Seminary.