December 30, 2013


Noveritis, fratres carissimi, quod annuente Dei misericordia, sicut de Nativitate Domini nostri Jesu Christi gavisi sumus, ita et de Resurrectione ejusdem Salvatoris nostri gaudium vobis annuntiamus.

Sermon for Year A, The Second Sunday After Christmas
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
January 5, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

The arrival of the wise men is fun for me --
 Fun, in part, because of the traditions surrounding it.

Eight years ago, at a church I was serving in Glenwood Springs, Colorado,
   Called St. Barnabas,
 Someone asked me after Christmas Eve services
 Whether the wise men should be up in the stable yet.
I looked, and, yes, there they were -- the Three Wise Guys -- adoring the Christ child,
 Along with, I think, a donkey and an ox and a kid playing a fife.
They were lovely, in porcelain, and I didn’t want to disturb them.
(I knew better, because I had already knocked over
 A priceless porcelain figurine on Christmas Eve a few years before, in Texas.)
But. I replied that no, the magi weren’t set to appear until January 6th,
 At the celebration of the Epiphany.

It got me to thinking. It’s hard to wait, isn’t it?
We live in a world where you can have anything you want,
 Pretty much whenever you find yourself desiring it.
There are fewer and fewer places in life these days where you have to wait
 In order to receive what you seek.
The life of faith is one of those places, and it can be hard and feel unrewarding along the way;
 Because we all want an Epiphany -- we all want a personal epiphany --
   And how long is this going to take, anyway?
Faith, sometimes, can feel as delicate and temporary as porcelain.

Back to Colorado. The Scriptures don’t argue with themselves
 About whether the magi were present in Bethlehem at the birth of Christ,
 Because from Matthew’s gospel it appears they just weren’t, end of story.

Nope. No Epiphany until January 6th.

What I was dealing with in this case --
 This lack of understanding about the wise men--
 Where they were, and when they were there --
 Was largely a cultural problem.
See, the church has only so many opportunities to educate its captive audiences,
 And those opportunities have dwindled to a precious handful:
 In essence, Christmas Eve and Easter morning.

And so the lessons the church has to offer have become jammed in together, conflated,
 Because if you want people to know there were ever wise men present
 (Whether it was at the birth of Jesus or some time after),
 You have to tell them the one time they come to church in that season of the year.

For a concrete example of all this, just look over here at the window on your left,
 In the back of the chapel.
Everyone except Santa Claus and Buddy the Elf is in it at the same time:
 Mary and Joseph and Jesus and the Wise Men and the Whole Magilla.
That’s because stained-glass was one of the church’s primary ways of teaching for a long time,
 Especially at times in human history when the majority of people weren’t literate.
Back then, glass was a carrier of the Good News.
But now we live in a society that’s mostly literate;
 Even so, we’re still picturing Christmas night with all the trappings of imagination.
It’s hard not to escape it;
 We close our eyes and we see everyone there from Jesus on down.
We can’t quite help ourselves.
Perhaps if we had all the time in the world and all the windows to fill,
 Then we could arrange for a series of stained-glass installations
 Where everyone shows up according to the way the story has them showing up.
Or not.

Back to Colorado again. When I saw this configuration on Christmas Eve,
 I recalled some of the inventive ways I’d seen this cultural problem addressed at other times.
In one church I served, that place in Texas,
 There was an empty crĂȘche on one side of the sanctuary,
 Present from even the very beginning of Advent,
 And on the other side of the room were the magi,
   Looking in completely the wrong direction for the stable and the Christ-child!

I liked that, because it humanized them:
 They were a little less mysterious, a bit more thick-headed.

In that congregation, over the four Sundays of Advent leading into Christmas Eve
 And the First Sunday After Christmas,
 Those little porcelain wise men somehow grew miniature porcelain legs under their robes
 And crept closer to the stable, week after week, when no one was looking,
 Until they reached the spot on Epiphany night.
Kids would come into the sanctuary,
 And they would check in on the situation, and measure the distance traveled,
   And it just blew their minds:
   That these inanimate wonders powered themselves closer to the site of the Nativity,
 Inch by inch, Sunday by Sunday,
   Just like they’ve done here at St. Thomas for the past several years.
A child has no problem beholding this scene with wonder and belief,
 Even though the hems of the porcelain robes of the wise men are so low
 That you can’t tell whether they even have legs with which to power themselves.

So I was pleased to come into the church on January 5th, 2006,
 And to see that the wise men of St. Barnabas
 Had almost made it.
They were so close -- you really wanted to root for these guys!

One member of the Altar Guild had acted with terrific care.
The magi were at one of the rear corners of the stable now,
 Straining, leaning forward with every ounce of energy they possessed,
 Trying to get a good look at what they had come all this way to see.

I had to laugh at this setup, and as I laughed,
 I was suddenly struck with the another truth about the journey of the wise men.

Being men of learning, men of counsel,
 Men of a certain amount of resources and material possessions,
 They had a kind of status in their society that they could very easily have lost
 By being seen consorting with people who were not their kind.
Being men from the East, they had made a dangerous desert crossing
 With nothing but the lights of the night to guide them,
 As they traversed a desolate wilderness laced with thieves and thugs.
Being men of certain repute and power, they had risked their lives
 In the courts of Herod, the Roman ruler of the Jewish state,
   Who would become so filled with fear and jealousy at their message
   That he would send out for the slaughter of many innocent children in Bethlehem.

Yet they came just the same.
They discerned their calling, and they followed it.
They risked boredom and danger and probably the loss of their own fragile, porcelain lives.
My guess is they didn’t stay long --
 Not much longer than it took to do what the reading says:
   They knelt before him, to acclaim him greater than they;
   They paid him homage, and gave him gifts of great value fit for his unique kingship.
Men of wisdom, acknowledging the presence of the Source of All Wisdom.
Then it was back to fighting for their survival,
 Sneaking back through an unbordered and unsafe wilderness.

Their journey is symbolic of the journey to Christ we all make in our lives,
 And especially at certain points when we’re certain we’re in the wilderness:
   Over the dangerous waste-places of human nature,
   Through the straits of self-interest and doubt,
   Forsaking our driving need for the energies of esteem, pleasure, and power.
Until at last we might find the stillpoint of great brightness where the Christ indwells --
   Both in ourselves and in our neighbor --
   And there seeing Jesus in his humility,
   Bow down and worship, offering all of ourselves as gifts to him.
Only let us pray that at the end of that journey we might rest a while,
 As we do now, in awe and wonder
 At the magnificent and sacred act of love laid before us.


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