Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"A Birth Like Death": A Sermon for Epiphany

“And being warned of God a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.” 
St. Matthew 2:12

Two different couples my wife and I know well have become parents for the first time in the last few weeks.  It’s been exciting to watch this very special time unfold in their lives, as they find themselves changing in ways they could never have understood.  One of the new dads told me the other day that he was supposed to head out of town for a conference next month.  But he just didn’t know if he could handle being away from his son for that long, that long being three days.

Our friends find love and joy drawn out of them in new ways, even as the demands of an infant bring all sorts of complications to the relatively well-ordered lives they had been leading before.  Enterprising, well-educated people aren’t used to having responsibility for creatures who cry and cry, but don’t give the slightest indication about what they really need.

Sleeping schedules, meal times, ways of socializing, eventually the furniture and the layout of the house—everything must be altered to accommodate the baby’s needs. “Having a baby changes everything.”  We told them this before, and they nodded politely, as you do at those transitions in life when everyone seems to feel entitled to pose as an advice columnist.  But now I’ve heard it from their lips as well.  I’ve seen that knowing look in their eyes.

Little Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s tiny son, surely changed everything in their lives.  But in remarkably short order He seemed to turn the rest of the world upside down as well.  The wise men, Saint Matthew remarked in passing, “departed for their own country in another way.”  It’s not a bad summary of the whole story of Christ’s birth and manifestation to the world.  No one who encountered Him could return to his old life in quite the same way again.

I read this week, as I do every Epiphany, T. S. Eliot’s strange but wonderful poem about the magi’s visit.  Gary has enclosed a copy in this evening’s bulletin.  Perhaps you know it.  It’s told from the perspective of one the wise men, weary from the long and tedious journey, aware of his weakness and frustrated with the world, not at all certain about what he had found at the star’s end. 
         I had seen birth and death,
         But had thought they were different; this Birth was
         Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
         We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
          But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
          With an alien people clutching their gods
          I should be glad of another death.

Eliot once called it “a kind of Christmas card,[1]” but it’s not exactly the cheery sort of thing you usually find sewn up in holly and gold lettering.  But it does point to something deeply true about the real Christmas, that revelation of the shocking newness of this poor Child who was in truth the Savior of nations, the Son of the God. 

Because many found his birth “a hard and bitter agony, like Death, our death.”  Old Herod, for all his wealth and power, quaked at the prospect of a rival born in Bethlehem.  He was no son of David and knew it well.  Herod would launch a bloody plot, and bequeath to his own son a fear of and fascination with this one who claimed to be the true “king of the Jews.”

Mary and Joseph, too, would flee into Egypt not long after the wise men had departed.  The precious gifts would go onto a donkey’s back, if they weren’t pawned for the journey.  Those first years of their life as a new family would be spent far from home, among strange people.  Mary must have thought often in those days of the prophecy that old Simeon had pronounced in the temple, “a sword will pierce your own heart also.[2]”  This child, though profoundly good, brought great suffering to those who loved Him.

And what of the wise men themselves?  Saint Luke tells us that the shepherds left the manger singing with joy, telling all they met about what they had seen.  The response of the wise men is not so clear.  The stars had foretold the birth of a king, and they brought precious gifts, and bowed low in reverence. 

But this child was poor, His parents simple people.  And the wise men were warned of treachery to come, this pure and holy miracle endangered by the jealousy and rage of the powerful.  Did they walk home with joyful faith, or in cynical resignation?  Did they see the child as the true king of kings, the fulfillment of the great promises of their own ancient legends, or did they return to their old gods, as Eliot’s poem suggests, troubled, but still unprepared to recognize the true meaning of what they had heard and seen?

There are many legends about the further adventures of the wise men.  In some they carried the Gospel back into the lands of the East, becoming missionaries decades before Christ would call disciples of His own.  Others have them returning to their astrological calculations, only to meet Saint Thomas, bound to evangelize the people of India.  The apostle explained to them the true significance of what they had seen long before and announced that the tiny baby had risen from the dead.  They believed then, and founded churches among their own people, and died martyrs years later.  Marco Polo claimed to have seen their tombs in 1272, in a church in the city of Saveh, in what is now Northwestern Iran, an ancient Persian center for the study of the stars[3].

Eliot, though, may well have intended his poem about the disenchanted wise man to say something rather more personal and universal about an encounter with this tiny child.  He wrote the poem in 1927, several months after His Christian conversion and subsequent Anglican confirmation.  Eliot fancied himself as a sort of modernist wise man, his poems studded with Sanskrit tags and existentialist philosophy. 

To grapple with the significance of Jesus Christ was no easy matter for Him.  Jesus challenged His pride and anger.  To embrace Christ meant turning his back on the predominant secularism of the literary world that surrounded him.  It meant a struggle towards self-discipline and generosity in his chaotic personal life.  Eliot clearly came to find great peace and a profound hope in His faith, but that came only after an abandonment of much of what had been important to Him before.  This birth of Christ, in him, was indeed “a hard and bitter agony,” “like death, our death.” 

So it is for all who come to Him, all for whom, as Saint Paul says, “the old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.[4]”  The good news about Jesus Christ is the greatest possible source of comfort and joy.  But it comes first with a stark challenge, to deny oneself, and take up the Cross.  The sweetness comes only after the bitter struggle, in which we recognize our sinfulness, and turn ourselves over to the only One who can save us. 

Some who hear the message, like Herod, will always resist it.  They cannot imagine a future without the sin that brings delight and sense of confidence, however fleeting these always are.  Others will be like the wise men, puzzled at first, wanting to take the next step, but uncertain about what this new life will mean for them.  But through God’s grace, others, like Mary and Joseph, like Eliot, like many of us, receive the message, and cast themselves on the mercy of the Savior, and find so much more than they could ever have expected. 

This Baby, our Lord Jesus Christ, is meant to change everything.  God’s plan for the reconciliation of the world to Himself allows for nothing less.  May you find Him again in this season a challenge and a delight, as He draws you more fully to Himself and reveals His glory in your life.

[1] The Poems of TS Eliot, London: Faber and Faber, 2015, 758.
[2] Luke 2:35.
[3] Dalrymple, William.  In Xanadu.  London: Penguin, 1990, 145.
[4] Rom. 6:6.

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