“And there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Have you ever wondered why, out of all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire and beyond, only the three wise men came to celebrate Jesus’ birth?
Have you ever wondered why, according to Matthew’s version of the nativity, out of all the people in the known world, only the three wise men were able to read the signs of the heavens and perceive that the rising of a certain star meant that a momentous birth had occurred?
After all, the same astronomical signs that moved the wise men to undertake their long, arduous journey were presumably visible to millions— the same evidence was available to one and all.
So why were the wise men the only ones who saw and understood, the only ones who saw the light?
And remember—the wise men were Gentiles, foreigners, who would not have been steeped in the Jewish tradition of expecting a messiah—how ironic that they would be the ones who, as the Bible puts it, had “eyes to see”!
But, of course, this reminds us of how it was often those who were outside the fold, who were not observant Jews, who were most drawn to Jesus of Nazareth, who saw the light of God reflected in him, who had “eyes to see.”
Artists talk about “training the eye” in order to see certain things in a painting that one would otherwise miss.
The wise men must have had “a trained eye” in order to see what everyone else was blind to.
Perhaps we are being told in this nativity story that we also need “a trained eye” to discern the Divine light, to perceive the coming of the Son of Man.
Several weeks ago the Gospel reading contained these words attributed to Jesus: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming….Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
But if his coming, like his birth, is always hidden in plain view, we undoubtedly need a trained eye to recognize him.
Matthew’s nativity story is a kind of seminar for training our eye to notice the right thing.
Matthew’s nativity story is a prototype of how the Son of Man is born among us again and again—this story is a primer on how to recognize his coming which is hidden in plain view.
So what clues can we glean from this story that can help us attune our vision to his appearing anew in our midst?
Well, for one thing, according to Matthew, no one is ready for this birth—the arrival of the Son of Man, the Messiah, is shockingly unexpected.
And, of course, the other glaringly obvious feature of this story is that the Son of Man comes among us in a condition of utter vulnerability—what this story of Jesus’ birth proclaims is not the power of God but the weakness of God, the vulnerability of God.
And it is this startling vulnerability of the newly born Messiah, the vulnerability of a defenseless infant, that both judges and blesses us.
And Matthew’s portrayal of the Messiah child whose birth no one is ready for and who, like all infants, is vulnerable, fragile, and helpless may offer just the clues we need to train our eye for the coming of the Son of Man.
For the Son of Man keeps showing up in our midst—but, as in the birth story, he seems to come when we least expect it and he comes in a condition of startling vulnerability that both judges and blesses us.
The other day I met the Son of Man in the parking lot behind the Chipotle restaurant as I was getting into my car with a carry out dinner—and I was far from ready.
In fact, I was so unready and unprepared for the Son of Man to abruptly make his appearance, I was so taken aback and undone, so flummoxed and disconcerted, that the first thing that occurred to me as he approached the car was to hightail it out of there—
Indeed, I was so eager to evade him and exit PDQ that I hurriedly hit the accelerator and drove the car over a cement parking barrier—and passers-by, startled by the grinding crunch of the vehicle getting hung up, looked at me puzzled as if to say, “What’s with this guy?”
When I backed up and once again scraped the undercarriage on the cement, more heads swung in my direction—all this commotion and embarrassment because I wasn’t in the mood for whatever requests this fellow moseying toward me might have in mind.
Now admittedly this gentleman, in appearance and demeanor, did not display obvious messianic characteristics—he didn’t look the part—he was definitely incognito—
He looked, for all the world, like an unkempt, shuffling, partially under the influence panhandler—
But then nobody recognized Jesus as the Son of Man either until he was gone—and I didn’t realize I had just met up with the Son of Man in that parking lot until I was pulling away and saw his silhouette fading in the rearview mirror.
What made me think that this shabby, bereft figure was the Son of Man?
Because suddenly I found that that face of helplessness, dereliction, and naked vulnerability was interrogating me, asking me the most searching questions—Who are you? Where are you going? What have you to do with me? What is the measure of your days? What do you have that you were not given?
Suddenly that panhandler’s ravaged, weather-beaten face became the face of the Son of Man addressing me: Wake up! Come alive! Behold your neighbor! For we are members one of another, and be assured there is just the slightest membrane of difference between your situation and mine as I forage for a handout—a slight shift in circumstances and I might be there and you might be here! So be merciful! If not now, when?
Matthew’s nativity story suggests to us that the Son of Man does not come among us in a display of power and might—he does not overwhelm us—he does not coerce or strong arm us—
Rather the Son of Man coaxes, lures, and appeals to us in gentleness and weakness—in a host of different guises and forms, he comes among us in a condition of startling vulnerability that shakes our foundations and refocuses our vision.
The Son of Man comes to us through a child’s upturned, wide-eyed, wonder-struck face.
He comes to us through the bewildered look of a wounded raccoon who is going to have to be put down.
And certainly he comes to us through the stories of those for whom embodying the vulnerability of God has become their consuming passion and calling, a passion pursued even at great, incalculable cost.
In his book about Martin Luther King, Jr., Marshall Frady writes of the time in l964 when King had led a series of demonstrations in St. Augustine, Florida—
These consisted of “night marches that proceeded with a hymning of freedom songs from the black quarter of town to the town square, once a slave market, where (the marchers) would be met with an engulfing violence from the whites who had been steadily sifting in from the surrounding palmetto flatlands…But then came one particular (night) of mayhem on the square—a storm of swinging baseball bats and trace chains and shrieked rebel yells, through which the black marchers made their way with a mute, unbelieving terror and stumbling frantic urgency, in a long leaning line battered back and forth like a canebrake in a wild wind, and at last breaking apart altogether, marchers scattering back for the refuge of the black section. Following them there, through several passing scuffles of my own, I happened to glimpse, in the shadows of a front porch, all by himself and apparently unnoticed by anyone else, King standing in his shirt-sleeves, his hands on his hips, absolutely motionless as he watched the marchers straggling past him in the dark, bleeding, clothes torn, sobs and wails now welling up everywhere around him—and on his face a look of stricken astonishment.
Later that night I found him sitting behind drawn blinds in the low-lit front parlor of another house, holding a glass of ice water with a paper napkin wrapped around the bottom. He said in a thick murmur, ‘You question—yes, when things happen like this tonight, you question sometimes—What are we doing to these people?…’”
Yes, Dr. King and his fellow pilgrims were definitely vulnerable, oh, so vulnerable—
And yet—and I think we still fail to grasp how astounding this was— this vulnerability turned out to be stronger and more durable than the dogs and water canons unleashed against them, stronger than the baseball bats and truncheons that thudded against their skulls and bodies, stronger than the vitriolic abuse and degradation relentlessly hurled at them.
And it wasn’t that they just survived—true to the words of the song that accompanied them in all their meetings and marches, they overcame—
Their vulnerability turned out to be indomitable.
What fueled Dr. King’s prophetic, redemptive vulnerability was his conviction that, as he put it, “there is something in the very structure of the cosmos that will ultimately bring about fulfillment and the triumph of what is right,” that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—and, he said, “This is the only thing that can keep one going in difficult periods.”
Even at forty years’ remove, it is staggering to contemplate what kind of courage it took for King to stand up in the most hard core, entrenched citadels of segregation and, at much risk to life and limb, publicly proclaim, ”We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we will not obey your evil laws. We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer.’”
For the vulnerability of the Son of Man is both tender-hearted and phenomenally tough-minded, with a capacity for enduring, staying the course, and changing hearts and minds that defies all odds.
The vulnerability of the Son of Man is like the pitiful-looking weed that somehow generates enough force to break through a cement sidewalk—and this vulnerability, by appealing to us rather than commanding us, can change us in a way that no amount of threat or force ever could.
And let it be said emphatically that the vulnerability of the Son of Man is not grim, gloomy, or humorless.
This vulnerability is full of gladness, mercy, and laughter—it is full of life!
There is something of the jester and harlequin in this Divine vulnerability—something comical and playfully exuberant.
Witness this anecdote concerning Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—Rabbi Heschel had just finished walking in the Selma-to-Montgomery march with Dr. King and was at the Montgomery airport in quest of some nourishment—
The woman working the snack-bar counter was sullen and disagreeable and glared at Heschel who, with his yarmulke and white beard, resembled a Hebrew prophet—
This woman said sarcastically, “Well, I’ll be damned. My mother always told me there was a Santa Claus, and I didn’t believe her until now”— she let him know she would not be serving him any food.
Heschel smiled, and then gently asked, “Is it possible that in the kitchen there might be some water?”—grudgingly the woman admitted that yes, there was.
“Is it possible,” Heschel asked, “that in the refrigerator you might find a couple of eggs?”—well, maybe, the woman said.
“Well, then,” said Rabbi Heschel, “ if you take the eggs and boil them in the water, that would be fine.”
“Why should I?” the woman shot back.
“Why should you?” Heschel said, “ Because, after all, I did you a favor.”
“What favor did you ever do me?” she asked.
Heschel answered, “I proved to you there was a Santa Claus.”
The woman burst out laughing, and food was quickly delivered.
So if we use Matthew’s nativity story as our lens, we might surmise that the Son of Man is born into our midst when we least expect him in the guise of a startling vulnerability—it might be the vulnerability of a panhandler, a child, a wounded animal, an African American civil rights leader, a Jewish rabbi, and on and on—
In whatever form of vulnerability the Son of Man comes to us, he judges our hardness of heart and invites us, urges us, beseeches us, to wake up and be merciful— merciful to our neighbor, merciful to our enemies, and, yes, merciful to ourselves.
And so it might be that one effect of our being surprised by the Son of Man crossing our path is that we may find rising up within us some variation of that old Eastern Orthodox prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us—have mercy upon us all.”
As Tom Schaefer reminded us during each day of the Waffle Shop, Jesus might be coming through the door at any time—which is to say we could have a surprise visit from the Son of Man at any time.
So the question of the hour is not the question that Hank Williams, Jr. shouts out before the kickoff of the Sunday Night Game of the Week, “Are you ready for some football?,” but rather, are you ready for the Son of Man?
Maybe you’ll be more ready than I was. Amen.
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church
January 6, 2008