Epiphany 2014 * Matthew 2:1-12
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Timothy’s School for Girls
by: W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)
NOW as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
-Reprinted from Responsibilities, W. B. Yeats, NY: Macmillan, 1916
Epiphany – manifestation – suggests, even requires, that we are looking for something. Like the magi, wise men from afar, we are looking for something – anything to help us better understand why we are here and where we are going.
William Butler Yeats helps us to imagine this all too familiar story in a new light depicting our magi as “unsatisfied ones.” This un-satisfaction is repeated twice in the space of only eight lines. Recalling their first seeing the Christ of God in that manger in Bethlehem, then disappearing again so as not to give Herod the satisfaction of knowing where to find the child.
Those of us who know the rest of the story know what a fateful decision this was to be – for Herod took it upon himself to have all male Jewish children two or younger killed in hopes of eliminating any one of them displacing him as Rome’s King of the Jews. Herod commits that first holocaust, recalling the ancient Pharaoh’s attempt to eliminate all male Jewish children with only Moses, Jesus’ distant ancestor, surviving. Moses and Jesus both know what it means to be a survivor – and how that calls one to lead a people.
Poor Herod shares the deep misunderstanding of those in power in any time and any place – a belief that a show of violence and force is enough to maintain power. And the misunderstanding that the one who was born on “the bestial floor” would lead some kind of military or guerilla revolt against the occupational forces of Rome. Herod’s is a miscalculation that continues to be repeated over and over again – just read the day’s headlines and it is there – ongoing attempts to use “helms of silver,” weapons of all descriptions, to bring law and order and peace to a troubled world.
It is the violence of Calvary – history’s most distinctly unsatisfying demonstration of the ineffectiveness of capital punishment – contrasted with the incarnation of God as Jesus in the most humble of settings, a feeding trough for beasts of the field.
Only certain magi, poets, and visionaries have ever managed to fully appreciate that singular moment when God came down to be with us as a naked, vulnerable, newborn child. Ask a Ghandi or a Martin King what they have seen.
At the heart of this Epiphany tale is the necessary moment of decision – a choice needed to be made in the face of power, violence and a show of force: will we give the Herod’s of this world our support, tacit or otherwise? Or, not?
The Magi, we are told, “departed to their own country by another way.” We might overlook what might be the two most important words in this all too familiar story: “another way.”
I believe Matthew in his singular telling of this tale – for it appears only in Matthew’s gospel and no other – is calling those of us who like the Magi are searching for a better understanding of why we are here and where we are meant to be going, that there is the way of the world, and there is “another way.”
Yeats imagines the Magi as having seen “another way.” They do not do the King’s bidding. They do not support an administration of power sustained by fear, violence and killing. They find the “turbulence” of Calvary and its display of capital punishment as unsatisfying for a world that calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. As an act of civil disobedience, they return to their country “by another way.”
There is something about the revealed and “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” of Bethlehem that calls, urges, demands we find another way. Is it just a coincidence that the very first generation of people who followed Jesus became known as “the people of the Way”? And that the “way” was His way, a new way, “another way” as the text before us would have it?
I imagine that Matthew’s telling of this tale still calls us to become a people who are looking for, advocating and bringing into human consciousness “another way” in a world in which all the old ways continue to be utterly unsatisfying.
Our satisfaction lies with the Magi – they demonstrate the importance of making a choice against supporting the old ways and physically striking out on “another way.”
This is who this Feast of the Epiphany calls us to be – people of the way, those who choose another way. We have now only a moment for this – like the Magi our time and our place calls us to such a moment of decision with no time to ponder, dither or “make up our minds.”
But as the Gospel of Jesus Christ shows us time and time again, although we have now only a moment to choose to follow Him in another way, it is enough - even if this moment is seemingly overwhelmed by other forces of history. For when we join our moments of decision with His and that of the Magi, new forces are set in motion that cannot be overcome by the inadequacies of power, violence and death.