In her final, beautiful book, the late, luminous Rachel Held Evans wrote,
The role of origin stories, both in the ancient Near Eastern culture from which the Old Testament emerged and at that familiar kitchen table where you first learned how your grandparents met, is to enlighten the present by recalling the past. Origin stories are rarely straightforward history. Over the years, they morph into a colorful amalgam of truth and myth, nostalgia and cautionary tale, the shades of their significance brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.
~ Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again;
Chapter 1: Origin Stories
The gospel offerings for both the 2nd Sunday in Christmas Year A and the feast of the Epiphany feature origin stories of Jesus, each story unique to its author/ community.
Matthew continues the project already begun in chapter 1 of his gospel, telling the story of Jesus’ birth and early childhood while setting him firmly in context as a Jewish Messiah, son of both David and Abraham. King Herod is introduced, the early villain of the story, as he welcomes “wise men” from the East who come seeking a newborn king. As in chapter 1, the story unfolds with scriptural commentary/ proof texts.
In her Working Preacher Commentary, Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder notes,
These wise men or “magi” in Greek originated from Persia. They were followers of Zoroastrianism, a belief system that was a precursor to Islam. Whereas translations refer to them as “wise men,” it is doubtful only men were in this group. Caravans from Persia often included women practitioners of this religion as well. Yet, Matthew clues the reader into the patriarchal context that often privileges male voice, male characters, and male presence.
The wise ones are following a star: a heavenly body is involved in the story of a heaven-sent child. The proof-text comes in the form of a brief quote from the prophet Micah (5:2), as Herod’s resident wise men send the travelers to Bethlehem. Herod urges them to return with the child’s location so that he, too might pay the new king a visit.
Following the star, the Persian travelers find the child, and present him with gifts laden with symbolism but also practical for a family about to be on the run. Gold is money. Frankincense, in addition to its cultic uses in multiple religions, could be used medicinally for nausea, chest coughs, and recovery from childbirth. Myrrh, a powerful anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent, is healing for abrasions and used as an ointment for rashes (think: diaper rash).
Matthew’s story offers its second dream: this one, warning the wise ones not to return to aid and abet the treacherous king. They return home by an alternate route.
John’s gospel offers another origin story, one whose dimensions are cosmic, and which shatter our notions of time and space. According to Working Preacher commentator Sherri Brown,
As in some contemporary novels, John’s prologue is an introduction, giving background that sets up the action and helps audiences make sense of the story to come. In ancient Greek drama, which is closer to John’s original context, prologues have a further purpose: they give the mythological background necessary for understanding the events of the play.
The concept of the Christ/ Messiah/ Anointed One as The Word, present with the Almighty at creation, rings a bell sounded earlier in the book of Proverbs. There, we find the related term, Wisdom. Personified as a woman, Wisdom sings: “When [the LORD] established the heavens, I was there…” (Proverbs 8:27a). In the earliest gospel (Mark), we meet Jesus as a 30-year-old man. In Matthew’s gospel we meet Joseph, who has learned that Jesus is in utero, on the way. In Luke, we meet Mary just before the miraculous pregnancy. Here in John’s gospel– the latest to be written– we find that the birth story of the Child precedes the birth story of all creation. In fact, the Child has no birth story. The Child is one with the One who is named, “I AM,” present before the beginning of time. The central light in the Matthew story is a star. The light in John’s gospel is Jesus Christ himself.
Like all Jesus’ origin stories in the gospels, this one contains the whole gospel in miniature, for us to see and comprehend at the beginning and remember along the way. John the Baptizer is his herald, and carefully named as not being the light himself, but the one who points to it. The central theme of Jesus being in the world, but not recognized by it, is introduced. Brown calls verse 12 “the pivot of the prologue, and the hinges upon which the pivot turns”: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…”
If there is a birth story in John’s gospel it is in the poetry of verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” This is followed by the inviting and pastoral declaration of verse 16: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
Some questions to ponder if you are preaching Matthew…
~ How does (or, Does) this passage serve to bring the Christmas story to fulfillment?
~ If the infancy narratives are the gospel in miniature, how does Matthew envision Jesus’ life and ministry through this story of Persian travelers on a state visit to royalty?
And if you are preaching John…
~ How will you address the image of light in this passage? What other ways might you name the absence of light than “darkness,” which can all too easily pile on already existing racist notions?
~ The often overlooked ones in this passage are “we,” the people who have experienced grace upon grace. How might “we” the congregation be brought into the poetry and power of this passage?
And for both gospels:
~ How might this story “enlighten the present by recalling the past?”
~ Which parts of the narrative spark joy or excitement in you? Which spark weariness, that old “been-there-done-that” that is a hazard of texts repeated annually? How might one or the other be a way into the text for you?
Please do join us in the comments… because, I’m sure you have absolutely nothing else to do today! And may grace upon grace bless your preparation and your proclamation of the Word this week!
Pat Raube has served as the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York since 2007. Pat is a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (MDiv). She is mother of two young adults (Ned and Joan) and happily partnered to Sherry. She loves swimming, reading, writing, and film. A native of the Jersey shore, and in love with the New England coastline, she misses the ocean every day.
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