Nativity Politics

The Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12
Lectionary for Mass

Welcome home, my child.
Your home is a checkpoint now.
Your home is a border town.
Welcome to the brawl.

“Song of the Magi,” Anaïs Mitchell

They are as familiar as any in the cast of characters that make up the mash-up we know as the Christmas Story.

The “wise men from the East” in Matthew’s gospel join the shepherds and angels found only in Luke to populate children’s Christmas pageants everywhere. With tinfoil crowns on their heads and festive tablecloths draped over their tiny shoulders, solemn preschoolers reverently place wrapping-paper-clad boxes at the feet of makeshift mangers. Parents and grandparents sigh and chuckle. Video and still shots are posted to Facebook before “Silent Night” has been sung and happy applause has been rendered.

Christians high-church and low have ritualized these stories (even as they have conflated them) in this very recognizable and much-beloved form. And why not teach children (and others) in such ways—through embodiment, performance, spectacle?

But for those who may be weary of the inevitable kitsch of this rite of passage, and perhaps especially for those who wonder if the whole nativity narrative isn’t just another fairy tale, it’s worth noting how the story of the wise men in Matthew (and also of the shepherds and angels in Luke) is rooted not in cuddly cuteness but in the politics of domination and costly resistance to it.

The arrival of the magi in Jerusalem signaled an upsetting of political equilibrium (or at least the pretense of it), and a calling into question of the rule of an insecure puppet king. Herod responded with murderous rage and the holy family found themselves refugees on the run. The cutthroat politics that led to Jesus’ death were amply present at his birth.

Yet the star-followers from the East not only exposed a sham king and the political dangers of worshiping a hunted baby Messiah, they also brought gifts.

In O. Henry’s famous short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” (like nativity plays, a sentimental holiday favorite), Jim and Della, in their material poverty, give each other the only gift possible: sacrificial love. The story’s title makes clear that the magi, too, offered only one gift to the Christ child. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh may have stood in for many things (the holy child’s own kingship, his eventual priesthood, his inevitable death) but these wise ones seemed to know that this Jesus would be a different kind of king, a different kind of priest, and that the difference he would make would lead to torture and execution.

Their gift-giving is a summons to our own, to make of our lives individually and corporately a witness of hope in and for a broken, despairing world. Like the world into which Jesus was born, ours is a world of political and economic oppression, of homelessness and forced emigration, of violence and fear-mongering.

To make a gift of our lives in such a world is to recognize the complexity of the story we tell, the paradoxes of a narrative that, as Anaïs Mitchell’s haunting song captures so perfectly, is at once tender and foreboding, sweet and savage, deeply humane and mercilessly brutal.

On the feast of the Epiphany we celebrate the fullness of the Christmas story. We make the seemingly foolish confession that tenderness triumphs, that love wins. We proclaim with Isaiah that our light has come and that our hearts overflow with this good news. We sing with the Psalmist that we worship not power-hungry sham kings but the One who has pity on the lowly and the poor. The One who came to us in vulnerability, amid scandal, to whom children pay homage in bathrobes and coat-hanger halos.

And we discover, when we give ourselves away for the sake of such a One, that

Our gifts shall bring us home—not to beginnings

Nor always to the destination named
Upon our setting forth. Our gifts compel,
Master our ways, and lead us in the end
Where we are most ourselves . . .[1]


[1] From Adrienne Rich’s poem “Landscape of the Star,” originally published in The Diamond Cutters, Harper, 1955.

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