January 1, 2017: First Sunday of Christmas
New Year’s Day
I apologize in advance for the fact that I will probably make the following joke at about this time in your hearing for many years to come. The only good thing I have to say about it is that, as my friend Paul Bryant-Smith advised when he charged me, it is not a pun.
I suspect you’ve heard the joke about the difference between three wise men and three wise women: the women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped with the baby, and brought practical gifts. All in contrast with the wise men, whose arrival now seems even more miraculous. It’s a good thing that they had divine guidance, now isn’t it?
The only problem with this joke is that the magi – and Matthew doesn’t actually tell us how many of them there were – did stop and ask for directions. It’s right there in the text. They went to Jerusalem and they asked King Herod where to look for the newborn King of Israel. He even gave them good directions. “Go to Bethlehem,” he says, “and, oh, incidentally, when you find the child, come back and tell me where to go and visit.”
“I’ve got a little something for him.”
When they didn’t come back to him, Herod sets out to look for the infant Jesus not with wise men but with soldiers, and not with gifts but with swords. We call the murders that followed the Slaughter of the Innocents.
The magi did ask for directions, and this is what it led to.
As a result, no man has asked for directions since. It’s only sensible. We’re preventing disaster.
The evil which Herod embodies in Matthew’s account forces a long and winding road on two groups of people. The first is the magi themselves. Coming from Persia, as is most likely from the title “magi” with which Matthew describes them, Jerusalem is a natural way point on the journey from their homes to Bethlehem, and of course in reverse. But warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they had to avoid Jerusalem, leave the main thoroughfare, and find another longer, more winding road back home. They may have chosen a path out of the mountains to the coastal plains, or they may have looked for a way through the Jordan Valley, coming up from the Dead Sea.
The other group forced onto another path is, of course, the family of Jesus itself. Their road goes south over two hundred miles – actually, I hope they were able to catch a boat somewhere on the coast. I also hope they were able to live in Alexandria, where there was a sizable Jewish community with whom to worship.
The road didn’t get any straighter with the death of King Herod. His son and successor, Archelaus, was no improvement, so Mary, Joseph, and Jesus detoured around Jerusalem and settled sixty-five miles to the north in Nazareth, beyond the authority of that new king.
A long and winding road indeed, forced, as so many are, by the forces of:
- power without accountability,
- wealth without generosity,
- knowledge without wisdom,
- privilege without righteousness, and
- insecurity without courage.
2016 has given us abundant examples of contemporary long and winding roads. Some are metaphorical: the long and winding roads of recovery from injury and grief that have been endured by the survivors of Orlando, or Dallas, or Nice, or Berlin, or too many other sites of murder and violence. Some are very real: the long and winding roads faced by refugees from Syria fleeing a war that has consumed the lives of so many of their friends and neighbors. This long and winding road has been lengthened by country after country closing their borders. Most remain in Turkey or Jordan, waiting for some miracle that might end the civil war in such a way that they can return to their homes.
I believe that part of the Christian calling is to shorten these long roads, and straighten out their winding. I believe we are here to welcome the refugee to a safe place, one that might become a home, or at least a home until their true home is safe. I believe we are here to help the injured heal, and to help the grieving mourn, to hold their hands and to share their journey so they do not go alone.
But I also know that evil never stops twisting the roads, that power without accountability, wealth without generosity, knowledge without wisdom, privilege without righteousness, and insecurity without courage threaten constantly to twist the ways before us. They threaten it, and they do it.
So our calling is also to follow the way before us, heeding the guidance of angels as it may come. The dreams of the magi and the dreams of Joseph came to preserve their safety. The roads wound to keep them from harm. I can’t promise that they will always do so for us – we have the example of too many Christian martyrs, starting with Jesus himself, for me to say that – but I can say that the long, winding roads will keep our souls from harm.
As David Lose writes, “Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, and so the God we meet in Jesus is not exempt from the tension, fear, violence, and horror of our fallen world. And God’s full-on embrace of the most difficult parts of our story reminds us that the world is not just fallen but also beloved.”
“Not just fallen but also beloved.”
If you’re still looking for a resolution for 2017, here’s my suggestion: resolve to follow your long and winding road of faith. It will twist and turn, and it will seem like the wrong way or a missed way at times. And, in fact, you may have to back up once or twice to get back on the road. Heaven knows I’ve done that.
But follow it with courage. Follow it with hope. Follow it with wisdom. Follow it with righteousness. Follow it with generosity. Follow it with love, and follow it knowing that you are loved. For God is with you all along the way.
The map shows the journeys of the Holy Family in Egypt according to traditions maintained in the Egyptian Coptic Church.