The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

The star and the dove

Posted by Ron George on January 2, 2011

The Magi: Astologers from afar

She read the gospel lesson Sunday morning, the story of the magi who, according to Christian tradition, sought the young Jesus and his parents by following a star to Bethlehem. Then Reader shared a personal story that could have been titled, “How This Christmas Was Ruined.” It all began with the death of an uncle several days before Dec. 25 and the gathering of our reader’s dysfunctional family, one of whom, Reader’s sister, announced to all that she’d rather be home alone but “Merry Christmas” anyway. Once Uncle was buried, Reader looked forward to Christmas Eve services at her mother’s home church, but that was marred by Sister’s stony silence and the Cousins’ loud, whispering banter.

Reader went home demoralized. Christmas had been wrecked by an untimely death and unseemly behavior. What could have been worse for a devout Christian woman charged with bringing a reflection to her home congregation on Jan. 2? Christian tradition came to her rescue, not only an Amish custom stemming from the 18th century but ancient Orthodox custom stemming at least from the third. The Amish call it Old Christmas and the Orthodox, Epiphany, a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism of no less theological and spiritual importance than Easter and Pentecost. Epiphany was the beginning of the Orthodox worship year, an affirmation of Jesus’ special relationship with God and that of all marked with the sign of the Cross in baptism.

Epiphany: The Baptism of Jesus, by He Qi

There is a complex history attached to Epiphany and how it became associated with the Western Catholic commemoration of Jesus’ birth on Dec. 25. Orthodox theologians often referred to Jesus’ baptism as his “birth,” the realization and public recognition of his divine nature and vocation. The Orthodox thus began their worship year on a very high note by establishing the Christian community’s divine privilege to follow Jesus in worship, prayer and good works, all empowered by the Holy Spirit. Western Catholicism, on the other hand, began its worship year in the dark, so to speak, amid the longest days of winter, looking forward to the birth of the Anointed One and the coming of the Light. Western tradition associated Epiphany with the visit of the Magi; and thus, over the centuries, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” developed.

The Amish charmingly retained the Orthodox worship tradition, if not its ancient theology. For the Amish – a holiness sect that resists innovative modernity to this day – it was a protest against Western Catholicism to retain a practice more ancient than that of the popes. Our Sunday reader found in Amish Old Christmas a second chance, which she wisely associated with a time less marked by the hubbub and crass materialism of the so-called holiday season of American secular culture. She urged the congregation observe Jan. 6 as a special day for reflection upon the true meaning of Jesus’ birth. What a gift to her from ancient Christian tradition, and what a gift of sharing to her congregation.

Sunday’s’ preacher followed Reader’s reflection by helping the congregation see clearly above the fog of typical Christian imagery as embodied in the Christmas creche, a Medieval devotion developed primarily by the Franciscan order: the holy family surrounded by stable animals, shepherds, angels and adoring magi. A careful reading of the Gospel of Matthew, he said, indicates that it’s unlikely that the magi arrived at the stable at all but at a house. It is likely that Jesus was at least two years of age; and the preacher speculated that the family’s flight into Egypt may have been funded by the magi’s treasure of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Astonishingly, he said, some creche sets include a figurine of Herod, the murderous Jewish despot known to history as Herod the Great, who built the Jerusalem Temple to the glorious state an adult Jesus correctly predicted would be torn down stone by stone.

Slaughter of the Innocents, by Giotto di Bondone

Perhaps some contemporary creche maker has stumbled blindly upon a kind of truth. Herod isn’t part of the traditional creche, but he is essential to Matthew’s account of the nativity. It’s a chapter our sentimental culture, which has watered down the Incarnation of God in Christ into a child’s fairy tale, simply can not bear to include in Christmas Eve scripture readings. It boils down to this: Joseph is warned in a dream to flee Bethlehem because Herod’s soldiers are coming to kill Jesus. The family escapes, but every male child in Bethlehem less than two years of age is killed. Traditional calendars commemorate this day, Holy Innocents, on Dec. 28, but it is seldom formally observed as we wallow in our gluttonous “holiday season” looking forward to New Year’s Eve and the football games of Jan. 1.

There is this dark side to the Christmas story, regardless of how it is observed in worship and prayer. It’s the side we typically choose to ignore because it doesn’t comport with our desire for the things of this world. That dark side, of course, is played out in the ministry of Jesus that leads to his death and the empty tomb. The baby in the manger becomes a man of sorrows acquainted with grief deeper than most of us can imagine or endure. His mother’s heart is pierced by all this, according to the gospel of Luke – but that won’t preach on Christmas Eve. Even the most devout Christians and their pastors prefer blinders to the implications of divine love poured out through the Chosen One.

The Christmas story is at once glorious and terrifying. It is finally, as on the day of Epiphany, the story of a star and a dove, as two great traditions of Christian thought become one in the stories of the magi and of Jesus’ baptism. The legend of the star and of the magi’s sacred gifts declare that this baby’s birth is good news that comes with a price – the blood of innocents as well as his own. The descent of the dove, perhaps with a peal of thunder, enjoins all who would follow Jesus to listen, to hear the good news that comes with a price – and to be willing to pay it themselves in their own time.

The Christmas story, then, is not at all about receiving gifts or even giving them. It’s a challenge in no uncertain terms to let God love us in the flesh and to love one another as God loves us in a world that is not inclined to listen.

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2 Responses to “The star and the dove”

  1. Jim A said

    Ron, thanks for this post. It was my task to preach the Matthew text on December 26, 2010. Yes, it is a text we prefer to leave out. But it is a text we must not ignore. For it speaks the truth. The truth about us – our murderous lust for power – at least by those who already have more than they can use wisely. It speaks the truth that you wrote about – that the baby Jesus grows to be the crucified Christ. That God’s love stands in the face of death. Thanks and Peace. Jim

  2. Ralph Willis said

    Ron your posting was touching, gratifying and most importantly, hopeful. God bless you my friend

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