In his Christmas homily, our newly-ordained assistant pastor compared the Christmas story to the latest Star Wars movie. He certainly had the congregation’s full attention—even the folks who knew little about the film got a chuckle when he revealed that I fell asleep half way through. (The movie, not the homily!)
But what if we turned things around and tried to explain today’s Gospel to visitors from another galaxy?
You’d probably have no trouble holding their attention—they'd know a whole lot about stars, and a star plays a central role in this story. The hero of the story seems to be a man called Herod—a fine fellow who takes stars seriously. And since the visitors know a little English from galactic grade school, they figure we might even get the word ‘hero’ from ‘Herod.’
I don’t need to remind you, of course, that Herod is actually the villain of the story, not the hero—unless there’s an extra-terrestrial or two in the congregation, we all know the real reason for his interest in the Christ child.
And yet I wonder whether we might learn something if we paid Herod some extra attention this morning.
Evil despot though he was, Herod got one thing right: he took the Saviour’s birth seriously. Dead seriously: he wanted to kill Christ.
Hatred, of course, is the wrong response to the Lord of Love. But it makes more sense than indifference. It’s more logical than apathy.
C. S. Lewis very famously wrote that you can shut Jesus up as a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But you cannot speak nonsense about His being a great human teacher, for Jesus has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
In other words, there are two very logical responses to the birth of Christ: one is Herod’s, the other is that of the Wise Men. Scorn him or adore him; but do not ignore him.
The Epiphany is our invitation to take Christmas seriously—to pay homage to God not only with our lips but with our lives as well. And if you think about it a little, the three Kings give us a very good example, starting with the fact that their homage was neither cheap nor easy. The gospels are vague on the details, but T.S. Eliot dramatizes them powerfully and believably in his poem The Journey of the Magi:
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
Eliot describes all the hardships, from lazy camels to overpriced hotels. ‘A hard time we had of it’ observes one of three Kings.
Nothing has changed: the path of discipleship today will not always be convenient; we’ll have a hard journey sometimes if we follow that star.
And when we arrive and find ourselves standing before God, we may find it’s been an expensive trip. The three Kings do not arrive before Christ empty handed, and neither should we. Have we brought gifts this Christmas, or only received them?
Of course He doesn’t want gold, or frankincense or myrrh from us, but he wants the best of what we have. Our time, talent, and treasure are the only sincere ways we have of offering homage to the One who gave us everything in the first place.
With respect to time: Have we decided to give more time to prayer—which is the homage of our hearts—as a joyful response to God? Is it time to reorder our priorities between work and home?
As for our talents: Have we considered whether we are doing enough to serve others, our church, and our community?
As for treasure: Do we see Christ still naked and helpless in places in the world that need our material support? Are we generously giving to support the Church’s mission at home and abroad? The answers to such simple questions may reveal whether Christmas has really touched our hearts—whether we’re taking it seriously.
The Epiphany is called in some Catholic cultures the feast of the three Kings. But we mustn’t forget that there are four kings in the story: three Kings and Herod. But there are no bystanders, no-one who sees the star and goes back to an ordinary life. Shepherds and Wise Men alike are filled with joy.
If Christmas has passed like a blur, let’s slow down today and gaze at the star that fills the night sky over Bethlehem—a star that guides, invites, and challenges us to believe.