Matthew 2:1-12, adoration
Today is called Epiphany, a day to focus on what happens after Advent and Christmas, when this one we’ve been expecting finally arrives. The word Epiphany means revelation, appearance, made known. So today is a day to focus on how Jesus appears and to whom he is made know—to notice who sees him and who welcomes him.
The scandal of the story of Epiphany, of Jesus revealed, is that the Magi are the first ones to come and see Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus is born, the Magi come visit, not the shepherds we hear about in Luke’s Gospel. For Matthew, it’s the Magi, foreigners, travelers from pagan lands. To call them “wise men” is to miss the scandal of who they really are. They aren’t elders or kings or sages. They are astrologers, sorcerers, fortune-tellers, priests who consort with the gods of Babylonia, Arabia, Persia, members of Zoroastrian priesthoods, magicians—our word “magician” comes from Magi, from these visitors of the newborn king of the Jews. The magi show up in the book of Daniel; they are the religious servants of Babylon, of king Nebuchadnezzar. Magi are enemies of Israel, enemies of the prophets and priests of God—despised foreigners.
Epiphany is about how outsiders, unacceptable people, people who don’t belong, strangers, foreigners with an offensive history, with an genealogy that ties them to the enemies of God, practitioners of a questionable religion—these are the ones who see the revelation of God. The Magi.
And not just see, but worship. “We have come to worship him,” the Magi announce to Herod in verse 2. Then, at the end of this section of the passage, we hear what the Magi do when they finally see Jesus. This is verse 11: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and worshiped him.”
To worship, proskuneo in Greek, literally means to bow down or lay down and kiss someone’s feet. A gesture of reverent humility, of total submission. Worship is something we do with our bodies, with our lives. And we learn the movements of worship from the Magi; not the priests of Jerusalem who serve as pawns in Herod’s plots, not from the familiar religious authorities of the homeland.
There’s a passage in the Rule of St. Benedict, a book from the 6th century, a guide for community life, that instructs Christians on what to do when strangers show up: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Matt 25:35)… Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons” (RB 53:1-2, 7). Like the Magi, who bowed down to the ground, in reverence to Christ, the people in Benedict’s communities bowed at the feet of strangers, a gesture of adoration, because they wanted to see Christ present in them. It’s not that they worshiped humans instead of God, but that their worship of God enabled them to see Christ in others, to see God revealed in strangers, to see the appearance of Jesus in foreigners, to experience others as the epiphany of God.
Matthew 2:13-18, lamentation
King Herod is fearful and defensive, afraid of what this child will mean for his reign, for his control, for his dominion over the people. Herod is known for his paranoia when it comes to his power. He is known to put people to death, on a whim, on a hunch that they might be involved in plots to take over his throne. Such rumors even led him to killing off family members, including a beloved wife, including three sons, heirs to the throne.
Herod shows us the fear that comes with power, that the powerful are fragile, that their dominion is always on the brink of falling apart. With more power comes more fear, the neurosis of power—to imagine enemies plotting in backrooms, to panic at the thought of losing control, the fear of ending up powerless, at the bottom of the social hierarchy, with all the others, under someone else’s dominion, subject to someone else’s rules.
Herod’s reign is a state of emergency, where rumors can turn anyone into a potential enemy, a possible threat. Herod is known for his spies, for undercover agents, scattered throughout the population, bystanders in the marketplaces. The combination of power and fear, the fear that comes with power, fuels Herod’s unthinkable violence.
An angel warns Mary and Joseph to flee their hometown, to seek asylum in Egypt. They gathered what they could and left in the cover of night, as refugees, to escape Herod’s terror. They were the lucky ones, the ones who got out, the ones who survived.
Beginning in the fifth century, the Western church has included a day of remembrance for these victims of Herod’s brutality—the Day of the Holy Innocents, a time set aside to remember these massacred children who have been considered the first Christian martyrs. Their death paid the price for Christ’s life—collateral damage, we would say, in our world of drone strikes, Herod’s collateral murder.
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Rachel’s lamentation is part of the Christmas story too. The story of Jesus draws us into the story of others, into Bethlehem’s devastation. We believe in a God who listens, who hears our cries. If we follow the story of Jesus, we soon see that this child of Bethlehem, the one who escaped the massacre, thirty years later he joins their weeping and wailing, when he cries out as he hangs from the cross at Golgotha, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The response is resurrection—God’s declaration that the violence of this world will not have the last word, that the Spirit will restore breathe to these victims, that their lives won’t be silenced.
Matthew 2:19-23, reverence
“He made his home in a town called Nazareth” (verse 23). There’s no much to be said about this place. It’s a town where people go to disappear, to fade away, to vanish from history. There’s no much known about Nazareth. It was in an isolated corner of the region, ignored by the Roman empire, ignored by everyone. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). That’s how people respond later in the story, when they hear rumors about this Jesus. Nothing good comes from Nazareth.
Epiphany is a day to notice where Jesus appears in the world—to watch for where God happens, in places like Nazareth, among the rejected, the despised. There a mystery is born, a mystery that overturns what we value as a society, that topples our priorities, our sense for what’s important in our lives, our sense for what’s worth our time and attention.
To believe this story about the birth of Jesus, the incarnation, is to let God astonish you with the Spirit’s presence, to feel your way into God’s mundane wonders and find yourself at the edge of words, the astonished gasp where poetry is born, where reason tumbles into faith, where a something births hope within us—God’s world reaching through our world, the new life of God all around us, passing through us, surprising us in the eyes of a friend, the face of a stranger, the words of a passerby, a quiet breath, the noisy bustle of a world alive with God.
Worship is our education in reverence: the way we listen, our patience with one another, our gentleness, our desire for honest words about God, for truthfulness about the world and our selves, being present, vulnerable, humble as if bowing down before God and one another, like the Magi, without defenses, without pretense, as we offer our gifts to God.
Our hope is that this gathering of ours, the way we worship together, will turn our attention to see God and to see what God sees, to hear God and hear what God hears—Rachel’s weeping and the Magi’s joy, both are parts of the same story, all of this is our life, the nature of our world.
To go on, in faith, with hope, is to love what God has made, to give ourselves to the world God has put before us, and wait for epiphanies of grace in the Nazareths all around us.
 Herbert McCabe, God Matters, 175: “Christ is, indeed, to be found in the present but precisely as what is rejected by the present world, in the poor and despised and oppressed, he is to be found in those who unmask the present world, those in whom the meaninglessness and inhumanity and contradictions of our society are exposed.”