28 years ago to this very day, I lumbered into church, feeling like a beached whale. Our sanctuary didn’t have wooden pews but soft backed chairs, so I was able to get through the service in some comfort. Then my brother in law invited us to Costco, a real treat as we didn’t have a membership. But the big warehouse and cement floor had me stopping at every chair I could find for a rest. Back in the car, with minus 25 temperatures, I was not impressed when my brother in law’s little hyundi refused to start. I’m going to have this baby here if you don’t get the car started, I sulked. Somehow the three Rosborough men got the car going, I went home and 12 hours later, I had a baby.
So my Epiphany Sunday started in a sulky mood of entitlement. I was not in a good space. I felt entitled to kid-glove handling and a certain level of sympathy as I waddled around church and store. But when that baby was finally put into my arms, all the sulks disappeared in the sheer wonder of the miracle of holding a beautiful child.
It took the hard work and pain of labor to shake me out of my entitlement mind set. But Herod did not have that pain and agony. He stayed stuck in his entitlement and was so threatened by the visit of the magi that he turned violent. The suggestion that there was a new and different kind of leadership out there, an alternative king to him, was so threatening, Matthew says, that Herod resorted to the worst crime against humanity; he targeted small children for slaughter. All because of three wandering philosophers who asked too many questions in the wrong place.
It was a natural mistake for the Magi to make, assuming that the palace would be where an infant king would be born, and natural to assume that Herod would be the father, or perhaps even the grandfather.
After all, that’s where kings and rulers are born, not in an insignificant town full of dirt poor people.
And this story would have resonated with Matthew’s audience who all knew the tale of their greatest leader, Moses, who also survived a tyrant targeting small defenseless children.
What is it about children that leave us shaking when they are attacked? Whether it is a drug addict in Edmonton attacking his girlfriend’s children, or a Syrian toddler drowned on a beach as his family tried desperately to flee war, or children held in detention centres for illegal immigrants dying needlessly, these stories cut to the heart of what it means to be human. All too often children are the victims of willful, entitled people grasping for power and control.
We don’t need to look too far back in Canadian history to see the damage done when we as a society were so threatened by children that we put them into schools to teach them what we thought would make them most like us. And the TRC calls us to become educated about how that has impacted generations of families. But we also see children at the Mount Cashel orphanage, or the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, and even here in Athabasca where a coach is alleged to have targeted his young athletes. For whatever reason, some people feel like they are entitled to take out their negative emotions and lust for power or control on humans least likely to be able to stand up for themselves.
Matthew placed Jesus firmly in the camp of folks who knew what it was like to be threatened by powerful people. He shaped his understanding of Jesus from Matthew background in the stories of Moses. He showed Jesus not as a powerful king and leader, but as someone so threatening that his parents became refugees just to save their child’s life, to protect Jesus when he was most vulnerable.
But Jesus never stopped being vulnerable. He never stopped identifying with the poor, the powerless, the folks who had little to no say in what happened in their lives.
The ones who knew pain and suffering. The ones who struggled to live by higher principles than just power, control and accumulation. The ones who look elsewhere than palaces for direction. The ones who recognized when they were in a place where self-aggrandization is more important than doing what’s right. And even the wise philosophers who recognized that maybe where they think they will find answers in glorious places of pomp and circumstance, turned out to be places of greed and selfishness.
We are called by Matthew to turn from the palaces and the powerful, as the Magi did, and search again by a star of wisdom and wonder. To humble ourselves enough to go into a stable where the hope of the world should never be found. We are called to ward against our own attitudes of entitlement and instead choose the surprise of finding epiphany in strange places.
In the end, the Magi chose a humble path, and that humbleness was what led them to what they were truly seeking. But, as I found out 28 years ago, it’s when we are most humble, most honest with ourselves, and most prepared to face the pain of being truly vulnerable, that we can find the deep joy of an encounter with a God that so loves us, that pain and vulnerability is worth the risk to reach us.
The scandal of the Gospel message, and the scandal of the Magi’s search for meaning is that the Divine is not found only in lofty places, but also in the lowliest times, the earthiest and most humble of places. And that divine reach right down into our deepest pain and suffering is a reach of love that brings healing and joy. May we all be transformed by such joy as we follow our Epiphany stars.