Today is the Epiphany, the formal end of the Christmas Season. According to the Gospel of Matthew, wisemen from the East who have followed the Star to Bethlehem pay a visit to King Herod, hoping that he is the right person to help them find the new King who has been foretold by the star. King Herod greets them politely, but when he hears the reason for their journey he is terrified and angry. Who is this new King? Is he a danger to Herod’s throne? He asks the wisemen to let him know the whereabouts of the newborn King so that he can pay his respects. Secretly, he plans to kill this newborn king as soon as he finds him.
The wisemen find Jesus, offer their gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, and return home without paying a second visit to King Herod because they are told in a dream not to. Mary and Joseph, also tipped off by a dream, flee with Jesus to Egypt.
King Herod takes the news of the new King to his advisors who are equally distressed. What could a new King intend? They imagine the worst. King Herod waits for the wisemen to share Jesus’ location. When he realizes they have gone, he decrees that every Jewish child under the age of 2 in Bethlehem is to be killed. This is done. Mothers wail in the streets as their babes are ripped from their arms, never to return. Their babies’ bodies have born the burden of empire.
Those in our time who would strip Jesus’ birth of its political message do an injustice to its liberating countercultural promise.
Jesus was not a threat to Herod in the way Herod feared. He had no aspersions to political power in its traditional form. Jesus message and mission was a threat in a much bigger way. His purpose on earth was to upend the established power relations of his time, to use a modern phrase, to #shutitdown and create a new heaven on earth where the last were first and the mighty would tumble. “Blessed are those who suffer for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus was the antithesis of empire. He was the realization of love.
We in the United States are in a powerful and frightening time, witnessing the second Civil Rights movement of the post-World War 2 era. Some of us are actively participating in this movement and allowing our lives to be reshaped by it and our hearts and spirits to be liberated by it. Many of us are learning the true meaning of a life dedicated to compassion.
Ferguson Uprising has planted the seeds of the antithesis of empire. It has held up the scourge of the modern day extrajudicial killings of black adults and children, their bodies bearing the burden of empire.
The militarized response to the peaceful protests and the misuse of the grand jury process is not unlike Herod and his advisors, reacting in fear and choosing to remove an entire generation of children to preserve their power. What is at stake in St. Louis, Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Waller County, McKinney, Los Angeles and across the nation is the empire of white supremacy, a death culture so powerful that even those of us who have thrown ourselves into the movement see its poison alive in us.
We all have a bit of Herod in our hearts. We feel the panic as established ways are questioned. We see our hand in the systems that we seek to dismantle. Is it any wonder that the reaction to this movement is so strong and often so hateful? Is it any wonder that 1½ years after Ferguson Uprising many in the movement struggle with the inevitable divisions that filter across the boundaries we have crossed to unify our resources and compel the powerful to relent. These divisions are the voice of Herod, the voice of fear laced with a powerful self-serving intransigence. What is at stake is nothing less than the Christ child itself.
But we also have a mighty star to follow. In Unitarian Universalism we speak of the divine spark within. That spark is the Star of the East guiding us into a shared vision of the Holy and the True.
“O Star of Wonder, Star of night, Star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding. Guide us to thy perfect Light.”
The star’s draw is so powerful that many of us have accepted its invitation and set off across the desert in search of a prince of peace, embodied in no one person but in the vision of justice and renewal that we thirst for.
I have met so many wisemen in the last year and a half, people I would never have known because of the racial stratification and geographical apartheid that shapes our nation. Some of these people have become good friends. Others are familiar faces that I recognize from attending marches. Some of these relationships exist on social media. There are also pre-existing relationships that have deepened because of our growing commitment to join this marathon – colleagues, parishioners, friends, neighbors, family. These relationships are my wisemen and they give me hope for the long journey. They help me to see when I’ve stepped into Herod’s court and what it might look like to get back to the streets of Bethlehem.
What it would look like, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, to kneel before the Christ child and offer gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense? Perhaps we have money, status, privilege, power, knowledge, wisdom, curiosity and humility. We have our spheres of influence. We have our voices, our hands, our eyes, and our feet. We have our smartphones and our laptops and our cameras. We have our patience and persistence. We have the ability to follow. But none of this means a thing if we do not have love, for it is love that fuels the brilliance of the Star of the East; it is love that draws us to one another; it is love that pushes us out from the court of Herod and before the manger in Bethlehem. Let us gather our gifts and bring them to the child.
May you have a blessed epiphany.