Rev. Laura Everett
Church of the Holy Translators Armenian Orthodox Church, Framingham MA
Thursday January 5, 2012 Armenian Christmas Eve
Matthew 2: 1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was board in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
It’s not easy to be a guest. When His Holiness Karekin II paid his pontifical visit to Massachusetts in 2007, I was one of the non-Armenian ecumenical guests invited to a reception. Your church had just joined the Massachusetts Council of Churches two years earlier and we were working to get to know one another’s communities. In my tradition, the United Church of Christ, we don’t have bishops or archbishops and we don’t have clergy we address as “Your Holiness.” I wasn’t sure what to say and less sure what to wear. I looked carefully for something in my closet that was formal and appropriate. I looked for the nicest fabric I owned, a small way to pay respect to someone else’s Church leader. We took a group photo with His Holiness. Row after row of men with black jackets and black robes. And there in the third row am I- standing out like a sore thumb, red hair and all, wearing a bright white blazer amidst a field of men in black. There’s a danger in being a guest. You might say something wrong. You might stand when everyone else sits. You might wear a white coat when everyone else is in black. And you might just meet the Christ Child. Will you pray with me…
“When the Magi saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
The truth is, we don’t know much about the Magi from the Scriptures. The Church builds up a tradition about these men, but the actual text doesn’t give us much to go on. Some traditions say there are three wise men, others say 12. Some call them magicians or astronomers, or wise men or kings of the Orient. They are non-Jews coming to find Jesus, the prophesied king of the Jews, while being tricked by King Herod, who was technically king of the Jews. The Magi get called the first Gentile converts. By the 6th century in the Western church, their names are laid into the mosaic at Ravenna, “Balthasar, Mechior, Casper.” But the text doesn’t tell us that. By the twelfth century, one of the Magi is depicted as an African, the other one as old with a beard and the third as young and clean-shaven. Later church historian will say that each of the three symbolizes Asia, Africa and Europe. But even earlier, by the 5th century images, the Magi are depicted as Persians, as foreigners. Their clothing sets them apart from the others depicted in the mosaics. They’re not like the shepherds, not like Joseph and Mary- and their not Jews. These men are foreigners. And all this flux about who they are, what they looked liked, where they came from gave the viewers and readers ample opportunity to project their own foreignness onto the Magi. The Magi come to the Holy Family as strangers and guests.
Did you notice that the scene here in Matthew is in a house and not a manger? Matthew knows nothing of a stable. The Magi enter a house. Christmas is a time to be a guest and to be a host. Anyone of you who has hosted family or friends over the holidays knows how tricky this can be. Being a guest is hard too. Do you bring a gift? What if you don’t like the food? What do you do if you accidently knock that family ornament off the tree and it shatters to a thousand pieces? To be a guest is to risk being beyond your own comfort. To be a guest is to risk being awkward and out of sorts. The Magi leave all that was familiar to them to follow a star to a foreign land in search of the Christ Child.
I’ve been thinking a lot about being a guest in other people’s communities. It’s part of my ministry, as the Massachusetts Council of Churches draws Christians from different traditions closer together. I’m in a different church most Sundays and I’ll tell you, it isn’t easy. You know this, you’ve been there too: attending the baptism of a cousin at a Roman Catholic parish, a neighbor’s funeral at a Methodist church, a friend’s wedding at a Greek Orthodox parish. Ecumenical awkwardness is a spiritual discipline. We stretch beyond what is familiar and we catch a glimpse of how other Christians experience God. We risk moving beyond our familiar place and tradition, and the Holy Spirit breaks in afresh.
You who have opened your homes at Christmas to friends and family, tonight you open your church to further wanderers and foreigners. There are a number of ecumenical pilgrims who have come to experience how the Armenian Church uniquely celebrates the birth of our Lord. We are grateful for your hospitality. And in truth, as we look for the star and peer into the house to see Mary and the baby, we are all guests in the household of the Lord. It is good to travel to Bethlehem together.
But you who host us tonight, I challenge you to be a guest somewhere new in the days ahead. Venture out like the Magi to seek Christ beyond your parish walls. As your parish continues to pray and plan how to build up the spiritual life of this community, look to other churches. Visit them. Remember what it is like to be a newcomer again. Ask the folks who are here for the first time tonight what it’s like to be new. That experience of being a foreigner and a guest changes us. Because of their travel to seek out Christ, the Magi are changed. They fall to their knees, bow their heads and worship the greatest mystery of a child born as a King, to lead not by might but as a shepherd. And look at that last line in Matthew “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Their experience as guests, encountering Christ changed them. It changed them so much that they went home another way. The Magi still went back to their own country, but they went home by another way. That’s the thing about being a guest and being changed- you can return home, but it will be by a different way. We ecumenical guests tonight will return to our home churches, back to the Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Unitarian, Roman Catholic and Episcopal parishes from which we came. But we’ll come home changed. Maybe a little more aware of how liturgy works over you, even when you don’t know the language. Maybe a little more attentive to our movements and sanctuary. Maybe a little closer to Christ, which is at the heart of all our work for the unity of the Church.
As good guests, the Magi don’t come empty handed, but carrying gold, frankincense and myrrh. For centuries, the different Church traditions have debated what this all means. From very early, the gold was understood as a sign of Jesus the King, the frankincense as incense offerings because Jesus is worthy of worship, and myrrh that’s used to prepare the bodies of the dead as a sign of Jesus’ death on the cross. Being a good guest means not eating up all the food, so that there’s none for later guests. And lately we’ve not been good guests on the planet. Global warming has become so powerful that the trees in Ethiopia that produce frankincense since the time of Jesus are dying off. Surely, that is not being a good guest. Thomas Aquinas explains that the Magi brought gold “because of the poverty of Jesus’ parents, frankincense because of the stink of the stable, and the myrrh for the sake of the child’s health.” Martin Luther looks at the three gifts as symbols of faith, hope and love that “every Christian can bring these gifts, the poor man no less than the rich man.” The particular gifts the Magi bring ultimately don’t matter. What the Magi bring are their own open, seeking hearts. In my church, we often sing the Christmas hymn “In the Bleak Mid Winter.” The lyrics are by the English poet Christina Rosetti in 1872, who takes the Birth out of Bethlehem and to the bitter cold of a British winter. If you know it, join me: “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what can I give him, give my heart.” Ultimately, the gifts do not matter. We give our willingness to travel to new lands, to brave being the foreigners. We risk awkwardness as guest. We give our hearts at Christmas to the new born king. May it be so, AMEN.