Texts: Isa. 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Title: "Epiphany in Bethlehem"
Introduction: We drove 5000 miles round trip to Petaluma, California. My wife Carole even bought me a Santa's hat so that granddaughter Anna could have her very own personal Santa Claus in this the second year of her life on earth. But like many two-year-olds, she wanted no part of it! She wanted her picture taken - or at least her mother did - with the real Santa who was posing for photos in Sausalito at the mall near San Francisco. After overcoming my sense of rejection, I stood there watching the photo op and wondered about the major ways in which the traditions around the Christmas celebration have been modified by the ever-deepening claims of commercialism on the season.
I got to thinking that maybe we should just give up trying to make "Christmas" the goal of Advent and skip right on over to the Epiphany season. After all, the actual birth date for Jesus is not only not known and two of our four gospels don't vote for it anyway...and it feels sometimes like God has given us over to our folly of making incarnation into the replica of our own design...packaged and marketed for our own use and not toward God's purposes. By going all the way we could then make full and unpretentious common cause with our sisters and brothers in the Eastern Orthodox (esp. the Armenian) tradition by letting Christmas fall under the beacon of epiphany. It is a move aided by the daily geography lessons from the war on terrorism; you and I know more about the region between the Black and Caspian seas and southward as never before, so why not consider a kind of Afghan-region epiphanic Christmas for the future that roles on by December 25 and targets January 6 or 17? There really is no indication of a Christian Christmas festival prior to the 4th century A.D. ... and the oldest Christian celebration has been from the beginning of our history Easter! ... so this calendar adjustment of a couple of weeks should not cause us much trouble.
Another advantage would be that we could shift the emphasis from "birthday" to "manifestation day," an advantage because the former got tangled up with replacing the pagan celebration of the sun god's triumph over darkness with the triumph of the Son of God... enter December 25 and the change of more day light hours marked off by the astronomical calendar and the winter solstice. Today the question is real: who has triumphed - as it were - over whom? By shifting back to the epiphany/manifestation or revealing of Christ and to the embracing homage paid to him by wise pagans looking for light and hope in a troubled world - wise pagans still look to the skies for a ray of hope - we could begin to put the Christ back into Christmas - as they say; in doing so we might re-discover the real reason for joy made manifest in hope eternal rather than seeking its symbolic surrogate in our purchases tied up with confining ribbons and tagged with our names placed beneath neatly decorated fir trees. Presents all-to-easily degenerate into the symbols of glut, excess, and opulent waste.
A) But Epiphany is for everyone; epiphany is hard to market; epiphany won't load up your credit card debt either. Epiphany is for the young and old of America and for the young and old of Afghanistan alike! All four of the gospels share the vision of Jesus' life and ministry as epiphany: God's visitation of manifest glory in a place and in time...this is no abstract idea. For Mark it is at the river Jordan with John the Baptist...the heavens opened, a voice happened, and a dove descended "you are my beloved Son"...; for John it seems to have been at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee some miles southwest of Capernaum...water into wine, do what he says...!; But for Luke and Matthew it is at Bethlehem! For Luke the scene has shepherds and a barn (cave?) and a manger (feed trough?) with no room at the inn, while for Matthew it is one of magi - keen observers of the signs of the times - (traditionally Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar) and a house in Bethlehem. For both gospels the scriptures foretelling the coming of the Messiah are fulfilled as the Son of God is born and worshiped at this former ground zero, a little town just a short distance from the city of Jerusalem.
B) It was one year ago this month. There we were - this travel seminar group from Austin Seminary - in Jerusalem. I seem to recall that it was around the time we visited the wailing wall that we heard the news. From the outset we knew that the political conditions closed off our options for visiting the west bank territories, which meant no Jericho and no Bethlehem! Then we got word that the Armenian prelate was making his annual pilgrimage to the Holy City and as a gesture of friendship the Israeli blockade of Jericho and Bethlehem would be lifted for him and all other pilgrims traveling with him. We were the only tourist group in town, the friendship gesture was extended to us as well, and we were allowed into Bethlehem...actually ahead of the prelate! The day following our visit to Jericho our bus negotiated the concrete block maze that was still heavily guarded by soldiers and we drove into Bethlehem. It was eerie! After a brief obligatory shopping visit at a pre-arranged merchant establishment - where we were greeted perhaps like those first visitors from a far-off land - we drove to the Church of the Nativity. You enter on foot through a walkway into a large plaza. The Church of the Nativity is on your left and some other large, more modern buildings are on your right. "Do not photograph those buildings!" we were told. These were the headquarters of the PLA and Yaser Arafat.
I began to think about the legacy in this town of wailing and sorrow since Herod's plot to kill the new-born king...matched now by the scorecard of dead Palestinians and Israelis that has, of course, risen dramatically since we were there. (You'll recall the recent helicopter attack on these very buildings; as Andy Dearman reminded me earlier, a 19 year old acolyte was killed on the square while caught in the cross-fire).
C) But there on the left was the locus of Christian pilgrimage since the 4th century. We arrived before the prelate. In former times the crowds would have been stifling...a solid mass of people, long lines, all awaiting their turn to make their way down into the grotto beneath the church and to stand or kneel in reverence for a brief moment at the spot marked on the floor by a golden star and a red candle...the place where the guide tells you that the manger stood bearing the Christ child. One by one members of our group had their pictures taken by spouses or friends in front of the floor-star...and in retrospect I am to some degree transported in my mind now back to the shopping mall in Sausalito California at Christmas time a few weeks ago.
Conclusion: It has become a life-style thing for us...capture the moment on film. Over time we'll thus be able to get out the pictures with warmth and pleasure - perhaps with decreasing excitement, perhaps not - as we remember and maybe remark to those to whom we show them "here is Anna with Santa when she was a two-year-old child" or "here is Joan with baby Jesus - well, where baby Jesus lay asleep on the hay (?), no crying he made..." when we traveled to Bethlehem 2001!"... before the rocket attack and we thought there was peace on earth...of sorts! But when the pictures in still-life are placed alongside the "motion picture" - as it were - of real life Sausalito and Bethlehem one cannot help but hope for the manifestation, the epiphany, of the real life Santa> the real-life Savior of the world...the hope that this One will step forward from the manger to wipe away the tears of weeping from Rachel's eyes. And this happens when we begin to do as the church did prior to the 4th century by celebrating Christmas as Epiphany shaped by Easter joy.