Shepherds and Magi

· Epiphany,Bible,Church


Each year, during Advent, I reflect on the Christmas season to come. Advent is a time of waiting and hoping. But this year, over the month of January, I have found myself reflecting back on Christmas. And also on Epiphany. These reflections have been enriched by a cartoon and an ornament.

It’s a Christmas tradition in our household to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. The kids like Elf and A Christmas Story better, but the short made-for-TV special at least makes the effort to communicate what Christmas is all about.

Lights please!

broken image

Linus takes the stage to recite the Christmas story from Luke 2. Well, at least the shepherds and angels part of it. I always thought there was something missing in Linus’s choice of scripture. Something like the birth of Jesus Christ. Isn’t Jesus the reason for the season? If only Linus had started a few verses earlier, he would have covered that. (The skeptical side of me wonders how long a life on network television A Charlie Brown Christmas would have if it featured the name of Jesus.)

Who were those shepherds, anyway? They worked the night shift (and probably the day shift, too). I can’t imagine they were paid a fair wage. And they faced dangers protecting the sheep from accidental death and predatory attacks. In the first century, they would have been among “the least of these.” The respectable classes of people didn’t count them in. Lowlifes. They didn’t even live in town.

Suddenly, the glory of the Lord in the form of an angel!

Suddenly, a multitude of heavenly hosts singing “Glory!”

God’s glory visits a herd of lowly shepherds and invites the shepherds to visit God! God stands in solidarity with the least of these! God brings tidings of great joy to all people!

The shepherds get over their initial fear and become the first recorded visitors of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. They are also the first to spread the good news of God’s presence on earth.

And finishing the story, there is Linus, quiet companion to Charlie Brown, spreading the good news to people who need it. I got the meaning of Christmas according to the Gospel of Linus.

Epiphany is the time we reflect on Matthew 2. We remember that magi from somewhere east of Israel travel to visit Jesus. (Let’s get two things out of the way. Just because they brought three gifts does not mean there were only three of them. And just because they are typically featured in nativity scenes and pageants does not mean they arrived very
shortly after the birth of Jesus.)

Whether the magi are scientists, astrologists, magicians, or some combination of these, they have seen a star that signals the birth of the king of the Jews. They make a stop in Jerusalem, possibly because it is the largest city under the star, and they start asking around: “Where is the child king?”

King Herod gets word of their presence and their question. Threatened by the idea of an upstart, he invites the eastern party for a royal visit. “My advisors tell me this child is in Bethlehem. I’d be in your debt if you found him. Please return and tell me his address so I can kill—ahem, visit him.”

At the end of the magi’s visit with Jesus, they are warned in a dream that something is up with Herod. Subsequently, an angel visits Joseph in a dream with the same message: Herod is threatened by this upstart toddler. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt. Even as a boy, Jesus is under attack. A refugee. The least of these.

In our church sanctuary, through both the Christmas and Epiphany seasons, the focal wall features this handmade star:

broken image

Only this year have I seen something new in the star; I’m surprised I haven’t seen it before. If we saw it in the sky tonight, it would beam out a cross-shaped light. The star tells the life story of the child born king of the Jews. His is a life that begins with the glory of God. And it is a life that ends with the suffering of God.

That’s how I got the meaning of Epiphany.

As someone who values the fact that Jesus became one of us—fully God and fully human—the truths that Christmas and Epiphany reveal mean a lot to me. God is the kind of God who chooses to confound the powerful systems and structures that rule any time and location. Two thousand years ago, God did this by sending strangers to unsettle an unjust ruler, and sending angels to uplift downtrodden shepherds. Today, God calls us to do the same by living on earth as in heaven. We find God’s call in scripture.

And in handmade stars and cartoon boys.