Rev. Peter Faass
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born 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.
A recent meme on Facebook showed a picture of two older women having coffee. One looks at the other and states, “A virgin birth I can believe in. But three wise men? Not so much!”
The Gospel of Matthew, where this passage comes from, has no birth story per se. Instead, it gives us the story of the world’s response to Jesus’ birth. First, we have the three Magi: Zoroastrian, astrology-believing wise men from Persia who traveled almost two years to see and pay homage to the newborn Jesus. Enter King Herod, who in fear, envy and great malice orders the slaughter of every male child under the age of two when the Magi do not return to give him the exact GPS location of this newborn king and perceived threat to his throne.
Despite his being born in remote place quite unlike Jerusalem, Jesus' birth does not happen under the radar. In fact, from the moment it occurs, it has seismic repercussions that reach the pinnacles of power and beyond the nation’s boundaries. To Herod, a pretty insecure leader, the newborn Jesus is immediately perceived as a threat to his power. Even before Jesus can speak, people are jockeying to get close and destroy him.
Even though the wise men mistakenly look for Jesus in Jerusalem, Jesus' eventual entry into Jerusalem is presaged with "the powers of death doing their worst" in the slaughter of the innocents that follows later in the story. But God has a plan for this unstoppable Messiah: a message of salvation to deliver humankind in word and deed that will change the world forever. Matthew is clear; there is a new power on earth to be reckoned with in all the cosmos and heralded by a star. Nothing will ever be the same again.
We are about to wrap up another Christmas season. The secular Christmas started right after Halloween and ended once all the presents were opened on Christmas Day. The sacred one will conclude January 6 (Epiphany), when we commemorate the wise men’s arrival at the stable in Bethlehem, delivering their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Every Christmas season, we hear of some new battlefront in the alleged “War on Christmas.” This year, that battle took the form of the accusation that Starbucks’ holiday coffee cups were threatening the sacredness of Christmas by not having bells and evergreen trees on them. Mind you, the cups were bright Christmas red and had the deep green and white Starbucks’ logo on them, making them look pretty “Christmasy” to me. Starbucks also carried Christmas tree Advent calendars and sold their usual special blend Christmas coffee beans, so it’s not as if Starbucks had somehow pressed the delete button on all things Christmas.
A more familiar battlefront in this “War on Christmas” frequently takes place in city halls, where city leaders debate the relevancy of nativity scenes in public squares. These battle lines are generally drawn around traditional Constitutional separation of church and state concerns. This then leads those who advocate for nativity scenes on public property to assert that we are a “Christian nation,” arguing that an overt Christian religious symbol is in fact appropriate on public property.
Well, if that assertion was once true, it certainly no longer is. Our nation is a multicultural, multireligious and multiracial place. In fact, America looks more like the heterogeneous place that Jesus came to promote as a place called God’s kingdom rather than a homogeneous one. So in fact the exclusive Christian Nativity scene is not a symbol that secular government should be placing on property held in trust for all people.
In the eyes of Matthew's Gospel, these arguments about the war on Christmas must not only seem ridiculous, but an indictment of what the church – or certainly many of her adherents - has become.
Matthew tells of the incarnation of God in Jesus that moved people to radical, life-altering acts. Jesus’ birth struck terror into the heart of Herod, who responded by using his power to seek out and destroy this babe’s power, God made man. This birth also inspired three foreigners to risk arduous and dangerous travel to come and pay him homage, presenting the child with the world’s most precious gifts at his feet.
Whether or not the Nativity scene is allowed on the town green, or Starbucks uses images of bells, evergreens or its own logo on its cups, Christmas hardly strikes us with fear or acts of true homage anymore – except those folks waiting for their January credit card statements. In fact, just the opposite has occurred with Christmas. We have, by and large, made its meaning benign, if not downright insipid.
There are some recent examples of the Church striking fear or great awe in the hearts of the world’s Herod. Archbishop Romero, Archbishop Tutu and Pope Francis have certainly stirred things up and given people pause to think about the power of Jesus. For the most part, Christianity has lost the power that the Incarnation of God brings to earth.
In his Christmas Day New York Times op-ed piece, “The Christmas Revolution,” writer Paul Wehner states:
“The incarnation . . . reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person, since we are created in the divine image.
But just as basic is the notion that we have value because God values us. Steve Hayner, a theologian who died earlier this year, illustrated this point to me when he observed that gold is valuable not because there is something about gold that is intrinsically of great worth but because someone values it. Similarly, human beings have worth because we are valued by God, who took on flesh, entered our world, and shared our experiences — love, joy, compassion and intimate friendships; anger, sorrow, suffering and tears. For Christians, God is not distant or detached; he is a God of wounds. All of this elevated the human experience and laid the groundwork for the ideas of individual dignity and inalienable rights.”
It is this radical and life-transforming understanding of Christmas that each and every human being has intrinsic value. The gift God has given us in Jesus is that God valued us so much he became one of us, and that reality strikes true fear in the world’s Herods, because if we are all equal, we no longer need them.
Jesus' threat to the powers of his day (and the present) brought an alternative to those powers – the Realm of God. It’s a place where all humans are intrinsically valuable because God loves us all.
Think about this truth in light of some of the issues we face today. If all human beings are intrinsically valued, how can we not love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves?
If all human beings are valued by God and we are all made in God’s image, how can we not honor and support the Black Lives Matter movement? Not because Black lives are worth more than other lives, but because so many people do not see them as being of much value at all. That inequality results in injustice and hatred and death for many.
The Realm of God plays by different rules and does not recognize the powers of this world. The Realm of God invites us to participate in it by inviting the powers of the world to take even our own lives from us as a way of showing that the world has no power over us.
Our churches are supposed to be alternative communities to the world’s ways. We are supposed to do things differently; we are supposed to be different. God’s incarnation proclaims it. We should proclaim and witness this as faith communities. Only in so doing will we will grasp the true meaning of Christmas. When we do so, Jesus is born once again.
 “The Christmas Revolution,” Peter Wehner, The New York Times, December 25, 2015
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.