Godly Dreams, Pagan Magicians, and the Holy Child – What does it all Mean?

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For most of the world, even the approximately Christian world, Christmastide is long over. But we have lived through only half the story of Salvation, and Lent is only a few weeks away So bear with me and let us look at what we have shared in the past six or so weeks. Let us go back to the Sunday of Advent Four. One last chance to finish the story; one last blue candle to light. And then the marathon begins. A Children’s Pageant, angels, toddlers in sheep costumes, maybe live animals, an old or new script rehearsed and ready (we hope and pray). Midnight Mass, the grand celebration, the coming of Our Lord with joy and thanksgiving. And the next morning all over again. The first Christ’s Mass. Have we forgotten anything in the rush? And then we disperse.

But the Calendar kept turning. December 26, the Feast of St. Stephen, a martyr who was stoned for proclaiming his faith in Jesus Christ. But this horrible act brought us St. Paul, a story of repentance and conversion, and without him and his companions where would the Church be today? December 27, St. John, Evangelist, Apostle, and the Gospel writer who points out that the Word, the Christ, was here since the beginning. December 28, the massacre of the Holy Innocents by a frightened, powerful ruler. January 1, the Holy Name of Jesus, also Circumcision of Our Lord, about which I wrote last week. The fulfillment of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the new one. And finally January 6, the arrival of the Magi to bring gifts, homage, and revealing the Incarnation to the Gentiles for the first time. Have we lived the Twelve Days of Christmas? Have we stretched out our Advent to the Epiphany? Have we rested by the crib of the Messiah, relived the first martyrdom, pondered over the Gospel of John, wept with the mothers of the dead innocents? Were we ready for the coming of the Gentile world to the Manger in which lies the Light of the World, the Prince of Peace? Will we be ready for Lent to finish the story?

The Gospel of Matthew’s account of the coming of the Magi is worth a second look. It is full of twists and turns, unexpected consequences. It almost reads like the script for an action adventure film with dangers, divine warnings, escapes. In this scenario the players in our drama are warned in dreams, saved from Herod’s wrath in dreams, guided by God speaking in dreams. Part of this, I suspect, was the author of the Gospel’s way of moving the narrative without offending the Jews whom he wants to convert, and for whom divination by astrology or other magical means was anathema. So dreams, speaking in God’s voice.

And yet here come the magi, μάγοςoccultists, astrologers, diviners. Gentiles from the wicked, lascivious, heathen East against which the Jewish people had a long grudge even before the Babylonian Captivity. Led by the portent of a great star they arrive not at the birthplace of the King they seek, but in Herod’s capital asking directions. And when called before Herod, they are pretty loose tongued about their mission. (Can’t you just hear the audience shouting, “Don’t tell him.”?) Does a king’s crown so dazzle even the wise? And what does that say about us today?

More dreams. They go to the Holy Child, fall down and worship, present gifts: gold for purity and kingship; frankincense burned as a sacrifice, lifting up prayer to God; and another resin used for incense, medicine, but also used to prepare a body for a funeral, myrrh. But they don’t go back and tell Herod. God intervenes and they are warned in a dream of Herod’s perfidy, and flee. But the Magi were also responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents. They told Herod, in essence, he had competition. It is a strange account, a colorful one which enriches every Children’s Christmas Pageant, one which gives a reason for Christmas or Epiphany presents, but, nonetheless, odd, full of irony. One which needed the direct intervention by God to play out.

Joseph dreams and is told to escape, and another twist to the tale. Joseph takes his refugee family to Egypt, that same Egypt from which his people, led by Moses, fled. And Joseph is called back, not to Judea but to Nazareth, to fulfill a prophecy, or a loose interpretation of one.

So far we are on familiar territory. A tale tailored to fit the prophesy of a Messiah who would bind Israel and the Gentiles to God. A terror tale of the humble child who is fully God, pursued from birth by power, power which would eventually murder him, and again the twist, an act of injustice that will grant us, all of us, forevermore, freedom from fear, from death, from any evil that humankind can throw at us. It is all of a piece.

Of all the Christmas narratives, I find this the strangest, the most active, the most political, at least until the Passion narratives. What Christmas and the Passion have in common is that they are both tales of incarnation, of flawed people, of murder of the innocent, of good confronting pure evil, of Jesus subject to the vulnerability of a real life in a time and place. It is our story, too. The Magi brought the Gentile world to Jesus, but from the world of Israel’s defeat and capture. Joseph listens to and obeys God by fleeing to the country of Israel’s slavery. Like Jesus, we are in the real world. And people are not always wise. Or kind. Or good. They betray us. Disappoint us. And God doesn’t always step in and bail us out, or if God does, it is pretty opaque to us. Last year was a hard year, full of evil, terror, political madness. We pray, protest, act, but it doesn’t seem to change much. But long ago God came as a child into an occupied Palestine, and the world did change.

Christmastide is never over. We carry the Light of Christ in our incarnate and complex lives, lives of betrayal, flight, fear, but also of faith that the Light will overcome the dark, always.

 


 

Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

 

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