Thursday, January 06, 2005

Epiphany: What Jesus Got For Christmas

Today the Church marks the feast of the Ephiphany, the revelation or "revealing" of the Messiah, as evidenced by the Magi, the Gentiles, the "not-children of Abraham." It's quite a strong statement by the author of Matthew's gospel, who was undoubtedly on of those "children of Abraham." But his nativity makes another strong statement: about how only those who are born, can die.

It is worth remembering, at Epiphany, that the revelation is not a recognition of "Gott mit uns" (Emmanuel), but of God incarnate, "in-meat," God-in-flesh. Soren Kierkegaard calls it the Absolute Paradox, but nowhere is the paradox more acute than at its beginning and end (we are, after all, creatures of boundaries). And Matthew takes pains to connect the beginning to the end. Only that which is born, can die.

Matthew's first chapters are suffused with death, and permeated with life, as well. Matthew places the geneaology first, listing the generations who have been born and died so that Jesus might be born. But it is the gifts of the Magi that make the point most clearly.

They are symbolic gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh. Gold is obviously the province of royalty, a symbol of economic power. The two perfumes represented wealth, as well; but they also represented death. Such perfumes, myrrh especially, would be used to anoint a corpse, as embalming was unknown in that culture. The Magi remind the Christchild that those who are born, must die. And then, when they are warned not to return to Herod, and Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt, Herod in his rage orders the massacre of all the two year old males around Bethlehem. Matthew, more than any other gospel writer, makes us understand the incarnation is a physical reality. This gospel reminds us that those who are born, must die.

Loudon Wainwright III puts it in a sardonic, although accurate, way, in a poem, "Christmas Song." Cataloging first the usual consumer excess of Christmas, and how little attention we want to give the poor on the way to our presents and our feast, he concludes with these lines:

God's in heaven high above;
Santa threatens us below with love
The family smiles,
The angels rave!
And what did Jesus get for Christmas?


Epiphany reminds us that God was truly with us; through and through. It is a sanctification, that even God would not try to get out of life, alive.

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