I know of a couple of parishes where, this morning, on this the Twelfth Day of Christmas, children are presenting a living nativity. We used to do that here – and I know we’ll do it again now that we have so many, many young children. And, oh, do I ever have great memories of the Nativity story that was presented right here in the chancel of St. Paul on this particular Sunday of the Church Year! It was complete with real-live sheep, goats, a donkey, some chickens – and of course these animals, to the horror of some people, did right here in front of God and everybody else all those sorts of things that come naturally to such creatures whenever and wherever they please – and so there was lots of absorbent straw spread around the place as well. And of course there were the children – dressed as Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men, and a wandering star – and one year a particularly wandering star, dressed in a white robe, with a silver star on a stick in one hand and her brand new, pink Hello Kitty purse firmly, defiantly clutched in the other – and oh how she did wander – everywhere, happily and without a care in the world. And I remember too how, one time, we had a real live baby lying in a manger – noisily. It was, you may say, a scene of noisy, happy chaos.
On the Feast of the Epiphany – which we’ve transferred to this Sunday, because January the sixth, the traditional day for Epiphany falls on a weekday – on this Feast of the Epiphany we hear the Christmas story from St. Matthew wherein the magi come to Jesus and bend low to worship and adore the newborn King. And though we may think of the magi in Christmas pageant terms with three children dressed in ratty bathrobes of various sizes and fit wandering after the star and her pink Hello Kitty purse and with their tin-foil-covered paper crowns crazily askew on their royal heads while the adults sing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” – that’s NOT the story we heard from Matthew’s Gospel just now. We heard of some magi to be sure – but no number was mentioned – and nowhere in the Gospel are they referred to as kings, nor necessarily as all males – but believe me, magi, to people hearing the Gospel in Matthew’s time, magi were definitely not the kingly, kindly type. Take the word magi, add the letter “c” to the end and you’ve got what? Yes, our word magic – directly derived from magi – magi do magic. They’re fortune-tellers, astrologers, people who read tea leaves, tarot cards, and chicken entrails; necromancers, sorcerers, practitioners of the dark arts, and givers of phony séances – to people in St. Matthew’s time, magi were pagans of the worst sort – idolaters, con-men, and carny people – and like carny people, rootless, landless, trashy – what my eastern-European-born grandmother would have called with a grimace and a curl of her lip, gypsies. (Our English verb to gyp, meaning to defraud comes from the word gypsy – for that is what such people were said to do – to defraud. And as our Grandma Maly informed us – her usual broken-English all of a sudden vivid, fluent, and clear – “if you don’t behave yourselves, the gypsies are going to come and get you!” Gypsies were stealers of naughty children.) Or if you would prefer to describe the magi in terms coherent for the Harry Potter generation, themagi have more in common with Draco Malfoy and the other followers of He-who-must-not-be-named than with Harry, Hermione Granger, and the Weaslies. But in Matthew’s Gospel it’s precisely Draco and the Slytherins who come seeking Jesus! Uh-oh. Drama – bound to ensue. What can these no-good-nicks be up to?
And then enter Herod, stage right. Powerful – and surrounded by respectable religious leaders – leaders who will guide him in orthodoxy – in right worship and in right praise. And the whole bunch taken together – consummate insiders. We are told that Herod – and all Jerusalem – have been frightened by the gypsies, those consummate outsiders, who come to the royal court and inform those there that the astrological charts tell of a newly born King of Judea. So Herod summons the religious leaders and asks them to foretell where the Messiah is to be born – they in turn use scripture like a magic book and say, “Bethlehem – in Judea.” Now Herod – who actually has more in common with carny con-men than with the religious leaders – Herod summons the magi – secretly, of course, since to do so openly would incur the wrath and disgust of just about everyone. And he tells the magi to come back when they’ve found this child messiah – so that he, Herod himself might go and worship. Really, Herod? Seriously?
And so the story goe: the ones who are given the gift of seeing and worshiping the infant Jesus are . . . . the magi – the gypsies, the homeless con-men, the outsiders, Draco Malfoy and crew. God, quite un-God-like, uses the very stars of this pagan lot to draw these star-gazers and practitioners of the dark arts to draw (very likely against their own reason or strength) – God uses the stars to draw these magi to the side of the infant Jesus – to Jesus, God’s most perfect revelation of God’s own true heart of love. But how thoroughly odd of God to choose – neither the religious elite nor the power elite – to come and adore the Newborn King – rather, these sleazy magi, utter frauds, and accomplished crooks. And to compound the scandal of the Gospel, it is these gypsies who instantaneously recognize (we aren’t told how) that they are in the presence of the True God – and so they genuflect, not likely knowing quite what they’re doing; they, who likely never bend the knee in respect of anyone, genuflect and pay homage to the babe who IS true God from true God. And from their fraud-gotten gains – from their thoroughly dirty, sexy money, they present gold and expensive incense and perfumes to this newborn . . . whattchama call it . . . Messiah – gifts which will be used by the Holy Family as they flee Bethlehem and the religious types and become themselves homeless nomads, illegal aliens in a strange and foreign land.
Some have called this story of the magi “the entire Gospel crammed into a few paragraphs.” And so it is – God calling to the side of Christ, God calling to God’s own side – not the insiders and those who think themselves deserving; God favoring – not the just, the favorable, or the godly, but the outsiders, the unjust, the unfavorable, and the ungodly. In Christ, God justifying – God on the throne of judgment saying, “Hey, in my eyes, you’re alright” – God justifying the crooked and those of questionable character. God, redeeming ill-gotten gains and bending them to God’s purpose. And the astrologers in all their fraudulence – sent, as if in a dream, upon a different road, guided now not by the stars or crystals bought in the Psychic Store behind Einsteins’ Bagels, there on the corner of 9th and Corona, but buided by the light of Christ that enlightens all people – and most especially the very unlikely.
So, now, you – go out and tell the story – not the story of three kindly Wise Men in crowns and bathrobes – but the story of the God who, by means both ordinary and unusual, reaches out to, calls, and uses to accomplish the Divine Will, the most ungodly cast of characters in the world – cons, crooks, frauds, hypocrites, sorcerers, gypsies, tramps, and thieves, along with us, this cast of colorful, oddball characters assembled here.
And did you know that Epiphany, the Feast of the Magi, is the beginning of the Carnival season with all its weird, scandalous, and trashy excess. So yes, let now the Carnival begin in celebration of the God who positively loves to death the ungodly. And, I really mean it, do go out into the Carnival and tell the story of the magi – the true story of the magi, the Gospel in a few paragraphs – because, you know, there are so many who need to hear it – because far too many have been told a whole lot of religious crap now, haven’t they?