Some years ago, I made my first visit to Holy Cross Monastery, a community of Episcopal brothers in upstate New York. I was interested to see, carved over the main entrance to the old stone monastery, these words: “Crux est mundi medicina”, Latin for “the cross is the medicine of the world”.
I was struck by this statement, one I had never heard before. But upon reflection, I thought of Jesus’s words in a passage of Matthew found a few chapters further on from today’s reading: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but rather those who are sick.” What sickness was Jesus referring to here? Jesus said further: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mt 9:12-13) In other words, the sickness Jesus came to treat is human sinfulness. Thus, as the words at Holy Cross state, Jesus is the mundi medicina, the medicine of the world, our Physician of Souls.
I recently found myself sitting in the dentist’s chair, learning that I had many cavities to be taken care of, and that I’d need a lot of dental work. It was what I’d been warned about for years—because although I have been a faithful tooth brusher since early childhood, I’d never become a regular flosser.
Oh, from time to time I’d make a resolution and floss a few days in a row. One year I even took it on as my Lenten discipline, which worked out pretty well until after we finished singing “Hail Thee Festival Day” and I promptly forgot where my floss was…
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
There may be nothing more important to us than claiming our identity as the unique individuals we are. It defines us as the particular persons we are: it distinguishes us as having a personality or individuality that is different, in some crucial and irreducible ways, from the personalities of others. One of the most frightening things that can occur to us is having our identity stolen or even having our identity erased from the arenas in which we live and act. A person with no identity is virtually no one at all.
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question: "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry not are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
"And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."
To be assigned to preach about this morning's Gospel passage seems like a punishment for my sins. Is there anything about this passage that grips the imagination? The argument between Jesus and the Sadducees seems so archaic, so irrelevant. Very little sense can be made of the argument without knowing something about 1st-century Jewish religion in Palestine--not an especially fascinating subject for most people. However, to get at the heart of today's reading, we have to understand its historical religious context. So I'm going to speak to that, and I hope you'll stick with me.
Epiphany is one of the 7 major feast days of the church. The word derives from the Greek word meaning “to reveal, or “to manifest.” In many parts of the world, including most Spanish-speaking countries, it is a much larger holiday than Christmas, with people trading gifts in recognition of the gifts brought by Matthew’s wise men rather than a large man in a red suit. In the United States and much of the western world, we have cloaked the story of the wise men with a romantic sentimentality both in the Church and in popular culture. We have made them “Kings” and put them in royal robes and placed them in radiant light inside of a manger that looks like it was designed by Martha Stewart or Oprah. And all of this has tended to cloud the important ramifications of this story in Biblical history. So this morning I would like to rescue the Wise Men from their places in the annual Christmas Pageant and put them back in their rightful roles as key witnesses to both the promise – and the threat – that the birth of Jesus represents to the world.
To place this in perspective, we need to go back to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible and of the Christian Testament. The prophet Micah, 5:2, which is paraphrased by Matthew in this morning’s Gospel, writes: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” The Hebrew Bible also foreshadows this event in Chapter 60 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, where the prophet writes, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn . . . They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Is. 60:3, 6b.) Then in the Christian Testament there is the prophecy of Simeon after he has laid eyes on the infant Jesus when his parents have brought him to the Temple. Speaking to Mary and Joseph, he says: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (Luke 2:34b-35).
And see the irony here: The Wise Men are gentiles who have no knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures of Isaiah and Micah that foretold the arrival of a Messiah. Their only knowledge of this event comes from their observations and their search for something greater than themselves. Contrast that with Herod, himself a Jew who considers himself the “King of the Jews.” When these strangers come from the East asking for the “King of the Jews” he perceives a serious threat to him and to his family and their status in society. What a contrast: We have these three gentiles who journey a long distance to pay homage to the King of the Jews, while Herod, who himself claims to be King of the Jews, wants to destroy him. The Wise Men represent the first gentiles in the Bible to recognize the coming of the Messiah and to perceive the enormity of what that will mean not just for themselves but for the rest of recorded human history.
And this epiphany – this revealing of who this infant really is – is just the first of a number of epiphanies we will hear of in the coming weeks – the miracle at Cana, the appearance of God in the form of a dove at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the transfiguration of Jesus before three of his disciples on the mountain, to mention only a few. And in each of these epiphanies, the world will come to know more about the identity – and the mission – of this man born of unwed parents in a muddy, smelly stable in Bethlehem.
But for today, what do we learn from this epiphany to the Wise Men? Well, first of all, we learn that this child came not just for the nation of Israel, but for all people throughout the world. That is the symbolism of the wise men – they represent all the peoples of the known world at the time. We learn that everyone – EVERYONE , without exception – has been invited to God’s birthday party, no matter what paths they may have taken on their way to the manger. And unlike King Herod, who preferred and felt entitled to the comforts of his royal palace, the Wise Men were able to see, and welcome, the King of the Jews not in a royal palace but in the dust and muck of a common stable in which God prefers to make an entrance into the world. This infant Jesus poses a real challenge to the comfortable, the powerful, the well-stationed in society who fancy that God favors them.
We need to be reminded that this child savior born into such humble circumstances will one day say things like, “The last will be first and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16), and to say in a parable, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40).
In the story of the Wise Men, Matthew offers us a depiction of an extraordinary hope: Peoples of the earth coming together united in their search for the King of the Jews and coming to recognize that the God of Israel is the God of the least and the lost, the God of the poor and the widow and the imprisoned, the God of the stranger and the refugee, the God of Justice, the God of servanthood and not superiority. All peoples offering gifts of themselves to the Ruler of the Universe.
Epiphany provides us with an invitation to discover the wonderful gifts that we find when we yearn for connection with the living God of all creation. St. Augustine wrote in The Confessions, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee . . . O Lord.” St. Paul, himself a Jew, devoted his life and ministry to helping Gentiles find God form a connection with the King of the Jews. In this morning’s Epistle, he points out that he even went to prison for the sake of the Gentiles, to make sure they knew that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3:6).
In the welcome of the Wise Men, as through the ministry of Paul, God welcomes all humanity to new life in Jesus, the Christ, the True Light. As followers of Jesus, and as successors to the Wise Men, it is our duty – as it was for John the Baptist – to testify to that light to all people. It is God’s universal welcome to all of God’s creation, shown through us – that constantly regenerates the Body of Christ, our family of faith, and makes it real to others. Churches, like Trinity, that strive to embrace such hospitality and welcome reflect the radiance of the Christ child and serve as a beacon for all who are restless to find a spiritual home. We become the new Star of Bethlehem for those who are seeking the promise of the Savior.
I would contend that epiphanies are not just a thing of the past, always beginning with words like, “Once upon a time…” By the gift of the Holy Spirit, and as latter day successors to the Wise Men and to St. Paul, we can make the Season of Epiphany come alive in our own time. The experience at the manger was an epiphany for the Wise Men. After they returned to their country “by another way” in order to avoid Herod, they provided experiences of “epiphany” to all in their own country with whom they shared their own experience and testimony to what they had seen. Paul also experienced his own epiphany when he was on the road to Damascus as described in Chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles, and he provided experiences of “epiphany” to the Gentiles in the many cities where he shared his experience and his own testimony.
How has the light of Christ appeared to you? By what light have you encountered the Christ Child? By what light have you encountered the risen Christ? We all have our own pathways to the manger, and each of us has our own unique, and equally valuable, ways of showing forth the light of Christ that we have experienced. But one thing we all have in common: We all are here because of the prompting of God, who is the source of our desire, our seeking, and, over the course of a lifetime, our finding. This morning Jesus invites us to give testimony to the ongoing revelation of the Word Made Flesh. I pray that this season of Epiphany and the days that follow may be a time for us to reflect on how we have experienced the light of Christ, and the ways in which we can be that light to others. Amen.
Advent invites us to wait in hopeful expectation for the coming of the Promised One. We are to watch for signs of the One who is to come. Watching means being attentive to our surroundings, to the people and the world around us, looking for signs of God’s immanence – God’s presence in our midst. When we see those signs, we are invited to make space for contemplation – to wonder about what all of this means to all of us – today, in the here and now. In today’s Gospel we are called to join Mary and Elizabeth – to wait, to watch, to wonder, and to welcome the new thing that God is doing in their lives and in ours.
This morning I want to reflect on two aspects of that beautiful story of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth we just heard, and they are summed up in two words: “Expectation” and “Welcome.”
A word sometimes used to describe someone who is pregnant is to say that they are “expecting.” The dictionary defines the word “expect” as “to anticipate or look forward to the coming or occurrence of something.” This morning’s Gospel from the first chapter of Luke features two unlikely women who are expecting: There is Elizabeth, a woman getting on in years who has spent her marriage being marginalized by the stigma of being married and childless. She is expecting the birth of a miracle child – who will be John, the Baptizer – in a little over three months. Then there is Mary, who has just received the miraculous message from the Angel Gabriel that she is “to bear a son who will be named Jesus, who will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33). I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that neither of these events was expected – even in their wildest dreams (or nightmares) – by either of these two women.
Yet once again, we see God acting in unconventional and unexpected ways. Once again, as God has throughout salvation history, God shows a propensity to work not through the rich and the powerful, but through the marginalized, the small, the seemingly unimportant – probably the last people that the world would expect. We see in this meeting of these two women a reflection of earlier scenes from the Hebrew Bible.
It is reflected in the opening words of our Old Testament lesson from Micah: You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel . . . Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth . . . And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. (Micah 2:2-4a). The Redeemer of Israel is to come from one of the little clans. And He will feed is flock like a shepherd.
Elizabeth’s words of greeting to Mary on her arrival, Blessed are you among women, recall ancient words spoken about Jael (Judges 5:24) and Judith (Judith 13:18), two women famous for the parts they played in liberating Israel.
And the words that Mary speaks in the beautiful song known as The Magnificat echo the words of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 when she gives thanks for the new life embodied in her long-awaited son, Samuel. Like Mary’s song, Hannah sings of divine majesty and power working through the most unlikely of actors. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength . . . [The Lord] raises up the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might does one prevail. (1 Samuel 2:4, 8-9). The Song of Hannah paints a picture of God as a master of reversals, of turning the expectations of the world upside down.
And this is all the background for this meeting of the Virgin Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth. Luke tells us that after hearing Gabriel’s news, Mary’s first instinct is to leave her home (and her fiancé) in Nazareth for an extended stay with her relative, Elizabeth. We aren’t really told what cases her to travel to visit Elizabeth: perhaps the sheer vulnerability of being a young, pregnant unmarried woman in first-century Palestine (or anytime and anywhere for that matter!). Perhaps she needed some time and space to process what was happening. Or perhaps she was just eager to spend some time with an older, trusted woman who was experiencing her own unexpected and miraculous pregnancy. Whatever her motives, Mary’s first move was to a sanctuary of love, of solidarity and support. The fact that this sanctuary was in a small town in the hill country of Judea, some distance away from the more politically and scripturally prestigious cities of Jerusalem, Rome, Bethlehem and Nazareth, only underscores the story’s central theme: That the God of Love lifts up the lowly, working out deeds of power through supposedly powerless people and in supposedly insignificant places.
To be sure, the words and the acceptance embodied in Mary’s song will eventually change the world. But on this last Sunday of Advent – the last Sunday before the feast of our Savior’s birth – we might do well to pause and focus on the small, personal aspects of this day. In their interaction, God gives to Mary and Elizabeth not just a chance to reflect on their unexpected places in history, but on two things that they each lacked individually: community and connection. In their mutual sharing, God helps them to understand themselves more fully in the context of something larger than their individual lives and destinies. What will become of them and of their miraculous sons is not yet known, and will unfold over time through both triumph and tragedy. For now, they wait in hopeful expectation on what God has promised, and they mutually commit to welcome whatever that entails, and to offer their lives – their bodies, minds and spirits – in journeying wherever that may lead.
Most of us who were raised in the church here in the United States have learned to celebrate Christmas in the secular context of the wider culture: Town Christmas trees and nativity scenes on the Town Green, Christmas carols sung in public school Christmas concerts, politicians sending Christmas cards to constituents. As our culture has become more openly diverse, many Christians – and particularly some Christian politicians – have lamented that Christ is being taken out of Christmas.
And yet, I don’t think that is the problem. I think that by allowing the story of Jesus to be diluted into popular culture, WE have contributed to taking Christ out of Christmas and allowed Christmas instead to be an annual festival of excessive spending, excessive indulgence, in which the predominant statement is, “I want . . .” We are assaulted daily by a culture that, in not so hidden messages, tells us what we should “expect” out of life – more, better, bigger things. I think the problem is that we have as a culture – and perhaps even as a church – lost that essential message of Advent and Christmas that is epitomized by this morning’s meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. What if, however, we shut out the messages of more and better and bigger and, instead, paid more attention to the messages that prompted us to expect not what we might receive, but what we might give? When, invited by God to become the most famous virgin teenage expectant mother in history, Mary did not ask, “What’s in it for me?” No, she said, “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). Mary and Elizabeth did not think about what they could expect to receive. They simply gave their lives, a living sacrifice, to the God who called them.
As the lives of Mary and Elizabeth, and the miracle sons whom they welcomed, would play out over years and even decades, so does the Jesus story continue to play out in our lives and in our life as a community of faith. Each one of us is a descendant in faith of Mary and Elizabeth, of Joseph and of Zechariah. How, by sharing and joining our stories with one another, can we connect our lives with the larger story of Jesus the Christ? As the world pushes us to an ever bigger, flashier and more expensive December 25th, can we connect with that sense of urgency, of waiting, watching, wondering and ultimately welcoming that which the Lord has in store for us? What do you “expect” this Advent season? What are you expecting for Christmas? And where might that lead you? Where might it lead us?
Please pray with me: Lord Jesus, as we await the annual festival of your birth, help us remain focused during these coming days to re-center, reflect and be ready for your expected arrival. Help us to be as devoted as Mary was, to say yes without hesitation, to welcome whatever it is you have in store for us. Help us to turn to those in need and sacrifice all we have to those who need it more, as Hannah did with her son Samuel; and lastly, help us to keep you in our minds, words and acts so that we may end this year and enter the next as the children of God you have asked us to be. Amen.
It is God who calls us together into a community of faith. It is not a random happenstance: God calls us to our location on Asylum Hill as the spiritual base from which we live out our call to minister in Jesus' name.