Where is the King?
The last question of Advent comes not at Christmas but afterward and is asked not by an individual but by a group. The Magi, sages from the East Who come seeking the Christ Child, ask this question. These men are astrologers—stargazers who read the sky for clues about events on earth—and they have seen a special star. They believe that the unusual star (some speculate not just a single star but unusual conjunction of heavenly bodies that produces an especially bright light) marks the birth of a special child destined to be a king. The Magi come asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Tradition has it that there were three Magi, probably because of the Bible account names three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The names used for these Magi are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and tradition also says that they are of three different ethnic groups, signifying that Christ comes not just for one nation but for all people. In fact, that is what we celebrate in January at Epiphany: Jesus Christ as the light of the world. We celebrate Christ as Light to the whole world, not as the Light to one small group in the world.
Many Christians mark Epiphany in only cursory ways as if everything about Christmas ends at midnight on December 25. We do seem in a hurry sometimes to put away Christmas. One “friend” of mine un-decorates and usually has all the Christmas things in the attic by mid-afternoon on December 26, explaining, “When it’s over, it’s over.” Most of us stop playing Christmas music, too, as if the songs are inappropriate at any other time of year.
Commentators have said we seem in a hurry after Christmas to box up once again our patience, our tolerance, our generosity and put them back in the attic as if we can sustain good behavior for a few weeks but wouldn’t want to risk making it a way of life. We may also put away our willingness to give a bit more, to be more forgiving, even to be more patient in traffic as we often are during the holidays. Perhaps we even box up our desire to hope and our openness to miracles and mystery, as if the messages of the Christmas stories can’t survive the rigors of real-life the rest of the year. The Magi call us to continue our observance of Christ’s coming after December is over.
In all likelihood, the Magi traveled in a caravan with a larger group of people, for protection. (This probability allows us to add camels to our Nativity scenes since caravans used camels in crossing the desert.) Maybe only three people joined a merchant caravan for convenience as they followed the star, but perhaps there were many who came to find Jesus. In any case, we include the story of the Magi’s journey in our Christmas pageants and place them in our creche scenes, even if doing so takes a little liberty with the timeline. (Jesus is a young child according to the Magi account, so the three probably did not arrive at the stable.)
In fact, during the Christmas season, we don’t usually hear all that scripture includes the events that followed Jesus’ birth. For instance, most of us are not as familiar with the stories of Anna and Simeon as we are with the stories of the angels and shepherds. Yet Anna and Simeon have the honor of recognizing Jesus as the Messiah and proclaiming who he is when others seem not to be noticing him. They appear in the story of Jesus’ Dedication in the temple at Jerusalem.
Anna is an elderly woman who spends all her time praying and praising God. At age eighty-four, she has been a widow for many years and never leaves the temple. Simeon is “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Luke records that “the Holy Spirit rested on” Simeon. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah (Luke 2:25-26). On the day that Mary and Joseph bring Jesus in, Simeon, “guided by the Spirit,” shows up, too. On seeing the child, Simeon does something unusual for a man of those times. Children were women’s concern, and men had little to do with them, especially children outside their families. But Simeon takes in his arms this baby whom he does not know.
Imagine this scene as a movie and listen to the soundtrack as Simeon sees the baby and takes him in his arms. The volume of the background music gradually increases as Simeon praises God’s compassion and gives thanks for having been allowed to see the Messiah. Then, as he proclaims Jesus to be God’s salvation for Israel, the music swells into a joyous crescendo. Then the music begins to change, modulating to a minor key, one that sounds foreboding, as Simeon says that this child will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), who are foreigners, not God’s people. Perhaps the music here begins to mirror sounds associated with “the East,” hinting of the visitors yet to come. Finally, Simeon turns to Mary only, saying that this baby “is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed” (Luke 2:34). The music now slows, as Simeon’s next words foreshadow sorrow during what has been a celebration. He says to Mary, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Mary’s heart must surely think, My soul too? What is he saying? Who else’s soul is going to be pierced? Is be saying that my son will suﬂer pain and unhappiness, that his soul will be pierced? And the music ends with an unresolved chord hanging in the air, leaving us to wonder about Simeon’s meaning and the conclusion of this baby’s story.
FACING THE WORLD’S EVIL
Mary and Joseph are “amazed” at Simeon’s words. The angels had told them that this child would be a savior, but this wise and holy old man says Jesus will cause great trouble for many in Israel. Simeon seems to say that this baby will play a powerful role politically. Even more shocking, the child will influence Gentiles as well as Jews. This prediction goes beyond what the angel said, what Elizabeth said, what Joseph knew from his dreams. Good Jews had nothing to do with Gentiles. The tone of this encounter is very different from the joy of the angels singing to the shepherds or from Mary’s hymn of praise for the “great things” God has done for her. Perhaps this ominous feeling explains why we do not dwell on Simeon’s words about Mary’s soul being pierced or on the rest of the Magi’s story. We want Christmas to be a joyful time, and we leave no place for discussions of trouble and pierced souls. So we don’t look too closely at this part of the story.
And it gets worse. The story of the Magi, this submission’s questioners, culminates in the darkest scene of the Christmas story, in an episode we don’t want to explore with our children. We don’t even want to explore it ourselves. The Magi come looking for a future king, and they begin looking where they expect to find such a person: in the royal household. They go to Herod, the governor of Galilee, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Sensing a possible rival, Herod “was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3). This statement should tell us something about Herod’s nature, methods, and reputation. When he becomes upset, the entire city is upset. People fear not what Herod knows but what he will do. After hearing the Magi’s account of the reason for their journey, Herod summons and questions his own diviners regarding prophecies about the birth of a child who will become “king of the Jews.” The diviners tell him that according to the prophet Micah (Mic. 5:2), the child will come from Bethlehem. Then Herod calls the Magi to him “secretly” and finds out from them exactly when the star appeared. He asks them to let him know when they find the future king so he may go and pay homage too. In reality, of course, Herod wants to eliminate, not worship, this potential rival. He will try to eliminate any challenger. After meeting with Herod, the Gentile visitors go on to Bethlehem, where they find Jesus, the “child.” They present their gifts, and “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod” (Matt. 2:12), they slip away and go home without telling Herod about finding Jesus. When Herod discovers what the Magi have done, he is “infuriated.” But he will not be thwarted in finding this rival princeling. In his fury, he issues a horrifying order: Go and kill all the children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem. The assassins head for Bethlehem to do as Herod commanded.
This slaughter gives us a glimpse of horrible evil. It is one of the most disturbing atrocities recorded in the Bible. Some orthodox churches commemorate this event as Holy Innocents’ Day, but many of us shrink from talking or even thinking about it. The slaughter of the innocents contradicts the warm, fuzzy feelings that characterize most of our Christmas traditions, making us sad and uneasy. In facing this event, we face questions that we don’t want to ask or try to answer.
Why didn’t God protect the innocents? That is a difficult question, one that we continue to ask when modern innocents die. We asked it after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, haunted by the image of the firefighter carrying a mortally wounded toddler from the wreckage. Why didn’t God step in and at least shield little Baylee and the others like her who were in that daycare center? We ask it when we hear stories of famine in faraway places or of children being used as soldiers. We asked it in horror after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City. As the plane exploded through the second tower, people around the world wept at the loss of human life. I have imagined a scene symbolic of the tragedy: Father Mychal Judge, chaplain to firefighters, kneeling to administer last rites to an injured rescuer. Removing his hard hat in that holy moment, the priest reportedly was mortally wounded by falling debris. Why must the innocent suffer? We still ask that question, and always we ask it from the midst of pain.
Though we cannot answer that question, the story of the slaughtered innocents reminds us of an important truth: Jesus comes into this world as it actually is, not as we might wish it to be. A harsh reality of the message of salvation is that we truly need salvation. Evil is real, and the ways of this world can and do crush life. God’s way unsettles the entrenched powers of the world, and they resist. Remember Mary’s song?
[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Anyone powerful and rich would feel threatened by a world like the one Mary proclaims. The “good news of great joy” the angels proclaim does not mean that the world will be suddenly, magically different. Jesus is eventually killed, too, just as the children of Bethlehem are. Anna and Simeon recognize the Messiah, but do they recognize how his message will shake the world? Simeon, at least, indicates that Jesus’ life and Mary’s will not be easy when he mentions the sword that will pierce Mary’s soul. Looking forward to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, we know that Simeon is heartbreakingly right.
The tough, ugly truth of this story reminds us that the world’s powerful oppose the coming of the new world of God’s reign. When change threatens to take power from the powerful, they seek to stop it, cancel it out, obliterate it, even if innocents have to die in the process. And as incredible as it sounds, we may adjust ourselves to such horrors without realizing what we are accepting. When civilians are killed in war along the way to reaching a military objective, their deaths are called “collateral damage.” Homes are bombed when airbases are the targets; hospitals are destroyed instead of factories. Collateral damage. It is regrettable, but some events like this are inevitable. It can’t be helped. “War is hell,” as we all have heard and know.
But we don’t want to face life’s harsh realities as we think about children. When children are born, we want to believe they will all grow up healthy and happy. We don’t want to know that this child will become an addict, that child will die of an illness in childhood, this one will never really find a purpose and will drift through life, that child over there will be consumed by greed and become ruthless and cruel in the push to get ahead, and this one will be abused. We don’t want to hear about the evil that is part of life. Yet we need the Light of the world in exactly those dark places. The world needs the message of wholeness that Christ proclaimed, and we all need the healing that is possible with God. We need to know Emmanuel—that God is with us—and the world’s people need someone to introduce them to Emmanuel.
We who are believers say that Christ is real and alive and acting in the world. That is not just good news; it is great news. People want to believe and need to hear, over and over, the message of God’s active and powerful goodwill. Perhaps it is appropriate that a group of people (the Magi) ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” The fact that a group rather than an individual presents this question suggests that this is the world’s basic question, asked in myriad ways: “Where is the Promised One, the One who will save and heal?” In many ways people come to us as individuals and come into our churches, asking in effect, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Where is the new way of life that I have heard about? Where is the Christ? Some of these seekers have journeyed a long time, looking for Christ in many places but not finding him, never being shown Christ by one of his followers. Some of them are deeply weary, their “hearts . . . bowed down with hard labor,” as the Psalm says (Ps. 107:12). They need healing and hope and peace of God.
According to the prophecies, Christ will bring peace and Christ is our peace. The peace that Christ brings is much wider and deeper than the absence of war. The peace that Christ brings is the shalom depicted in Hebrew scripture—a world where the hungry are fed, where people grow toward wholeness, Where the entire created order is cared for, where all oppression ends, where all of God’s children receive God’s abundance with thankful hearts because they recognize its source. The prophet Jeremiah pictures God’s desire for shalom, saying, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer. 29:11). God wants this abundant life for us, the abundant life Jesus came to give. Yet when we place this vision alongside the harsh realities of life, we may almost despair of the world’s ever being what God desires. Christmas makes its promises, but the world doesn’t seem much different this year than last or the year before that or the year before that. Kids shoot their classmates; disgruntled employees attack coworkers; bombers kill children in shopping malls; refugees stream out of war-torn countries. “Where is the Christ? Where is Peace?” the crowd asks. “Where is the One born to be our Savior?”
We hear people say about something that sounds good, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” We who know Christ have the opportunity to let others “see it,” to show them Christ. We can embody for the world the answer to the question, “Where is the One born to save us?” As Paul tells the Corinthians, “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). As the Epistle to the Galatians puts it, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). And in Colossians, “Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11). You and I have the privilege of continuing the Incarnation. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary the mother of Jesus is called theotokos, which is literally translated “God-bearer.” Mary bore Christ into the world, and all those who share in the life that Christ gives can also become “God-bearers” in the world. People come to the church expecting to hear about God and find God, just as they come into a restaurant expecting to find food. Do they see God in us? Do they encounter love and realize its power through their interactions with us?
How does God transform the world? One heart at a time, one person at a time, one family at a time. We don’t have to confront the world’s Herods, matching power with power, to confound the forces of death and evil. As the Christmas carol says, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” God slips quietly into the world, stealthily, waiting to overturn strongholds.
You may say to yourself, I am not the sort of person God would choose to help change the world. I imagine that’s exactly what Mary thought. And those shepherds near Bethlehem, do they match our image of a message—bearers from God? Shepherds were fringe people, at best. When Jesus spoke of himself as a shepherd, he had to put “good” in front of “shepherd” to be sure his hearers would envision someone other than the more usual sort of shepherd. Shepherds probably would n0t be anyone’s messengers of choice, but Luke describes the shepherds as the first to publicly proclaim the “good news of great joy.” God chooses and uses unlikely people. An angel did not visit the “important” people of the time like Quirinius or Herod. The angel came to Zechariah, described by writer John Indermark as “a minor temple official never heard from again,” and to Mary, a peasant girl of no particular note. The forerunner of Jesus was a weird prophet named John who dressed in scratchy camel’s hair and lived as a hermit, subsisting on bugs and wild honey. These folks were not from the upper echelons of their society. We see that God repeatedly turns the usual power system on its ear, ignoring the biggies and using obscure people like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and John—people whose availability and willingness to surrender to an uncertain future qualify them as instruments of God.
The season of Epiphany proclaims the truth that Christ comes to all people and will come to our neighborhoods, our towns, our workplaces if we are willing to allow the love of God to be incarnate in us. Every situation that calls for healing and hope offers us the privilege and the responsibility of representing and representing Christ. Where is the Savior? Where is Christ? Take a look in a mirror. Are you willing to say, “Right here”? That sounds arrogant, doesn’t it? But where else will God be made real and visible if not in us who say we are Christians?
The Magi come asking, “Where is the One born to be the Savior?” People all around us are asking that question. Day in and day out, whether they or we realize it, people express in countless ways the yearning to know and be known by God. We have the privilege of helping them to come to know that God is real, that evil will not have the last word, that even a world where innocents are killed can be transformed if we will allow ourselves to be transformed.
The wonder of God’s coming is this: God doesn’t want to be our business partner, to relate to us as a favored relative, to live near us or even with us. God wants to live in us and through us. As Matthew 5:14 tells us, we are the light of the world. We are meant to be God’s embodied love. When we obey the claims of Christ, we are God’s continuing incarnation. Embracing one person at a time, we help those we meet to believe that they matter and that they are embraced by God.