The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcription from the audio
In the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this second Sunday after Christmas, we are invited to join the Magi at the manger scene. Like the Magi, each one of us has had our own journey to Bethlehem. Each one of us bring something with us to that miracle at the manger scene. And each one of us, like the Magi, has the opportunity and the invitation to receive the gift, the greatest gift that God ever imagined and gave for you and for me.
One of the beauties, I believe, of this story, as it’s told in Matthew’s gospel, is actually the simplicity of it, the lack of detail. We know that there were Magi. We don’t know how many, despite what you hear in the hymns, like the one we sang at the procession. It never says there were three. We don’t know where they came from. The East covers a wide geographic possibility. What we do know is that they saw the light and they knew that something miraculous had been born and they sought to seek it out and to be present among us. They were Gentiles, like most of you and me. The lack of detail, I think, gives us a wide opportunity to find ourselves in that story. We, too, are gathered at the manger. We, too, are invited to witness that miracle. We, too, are invited to bring whatever it is that we have to offer and receive what is offered in return.
What was your road to Bethlehem this year? What twists and turns and bumps and surprises did you encounter along the way? What did you bring with you to the manger scene in Bethlehem? It’s natural at the beginning of a new year to reflect on the year that has been. And I think in reflecting on it, many of us would say that we brought a disparate collection and constellation of things to that manger scene: maybe fear, hopes, dreams, aspirations, a longing that the world that we inhabit will somehow bear a closer resemblance to the peaceable kingdom and a just world that God created from the very beginning. The beauty of the story is that it’s a universal story. All are invited to behold the Christ child.
One of the diverse ways in which I believe the Cathedral offers that universal image is in our extraordinary manger scene and crèche collection which is on exhibition, one floor below the nave level. You may know that in 1998, Beulah and John Sommer gave the Cathedral over 600 crèche sets that they had collected from around the world. And every year, faithfully, a representative sampling of those crèche sets appear. Some are quite small. They’d fit in the palm of your hand with space left over. Some are grand and elaborate. They reflect the way that people around the world experience that manger scene. Some have water buffalo and elephants present in the manger scene—not just your typical cattle and donkey. Some have four wise men, if you can believe it. Some have a whole village of wise people who’ve come to behold, looking probably a lot like you and me.
One of my favorites this year is from Ecuador. Jesus has a little cross around his neck. Mary has a rosary. The wise men are arriving to the scene on white llamas. There’s an enormous rooster, sort of people size, that’s trumpeting the great good news for all the world to hear. And then there’s Joseph. Poor Joseph, who didn’t even get a mention in today’s gospel—but we know he was there—holding a flower across his chest, symbolizing the rebirth of the world made possible by the birth of the Christ child.
There have been so many overlays over the 2000 years since Christ’s birth that it’s hard for, I think, all of us to go back to the time when we first heard the story. Can you remember? Can you remember what you heard? Can you remember how you received that story, the very first time? As I was reflecting on that question, I was reminded of a story I heard years ago. It’s a true story. I’ve shared it once at the Cathedral, but given where I think we find ourselves in time and space in this country and around the world, it came back to me.
Many years ago, an American couple was invited by the Ministry of Education in Russia to go to Russia to teach morals and ethics from a Christian perspective. And so they made their way around Russia teaching in schools, in firehouses, in public places. The trip was going well and along the way they were invited to go to an orphanage. It was a desperately poor orphanage. There were about 100 orphans there, all of whom had been abused and abandoned. This couple knew that the children most likely had never heard the story, and, you see, it was Christmas time. So they went and they shared the story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus and the shepherds and the Magi bringing gifts. Then they invited the children with simple materials of felt and colored paper to construct their own manger scene, having heard the story for the very first time: their manger scene, their own Bethlehem.
And so the children were busy about the task of creating these scenes and all was going essentially according to plan until they noticed one manger scene had a really odd anomaly. There were two babies in the crib and they were puzzled. So they asked the translator to engage the young boy—he was six; his name was Misha—on the story of his manger scene. So young Misha repeats the story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus and the shepherds and the Magi almost verbatim to the story that the couple had told, until he got to one point and then the story took a different turn.
Misha told the story that as Mary was placing the baby Jesus in the crib, Jesus looked at him and asked, “Do you have a place to stay?” And Misha responded, “I have no mommy, I have no daddy, and I have no place to stay.” And Jesus looked at him and said, “Well, you can come and stay with me.” Misha desperately wanted to be with Jesus but he thought about what he had to give and he had nothing to offer. Nothing. He remembered the story of the Magi and what they brought to the little baby King. And as he thought about it, the only thing he could think of was that he could truly offer himself, that he could offer the warmth of his body to help keep the baby Jesus warm in the crib. So he asked Jesus, “If I could give you the warmth of my own body to help keep you warm would that be a good enough gift?” Jesus looked at him and said, “If you gave me the offering of yourself in the gift of warmth that would be the greatest gift I could possibly receive and you could come and be with me always.” At that point Misha put his head down on his desk and he wept, because, you see, he had finally experienced someone in his life who would never abuse him, never abandon him, someone to be with him always.
My brothers and sisters that is the story. That is the miracle of the birth of God Incarnate in Bethlehem: one to be with us always, to touch us, to transform us, to heal us, to empower us. My prayer for each one of us, as we surround that miracle around the manger, is that we, too, may fully receive the light, the life, the love that came into the world and to take it out into this hurting and suffering world that we inhabit that’s full of Herods, knowing that nothing can overcome the darkness like the light, and the love, and the life of Christ. May that be your gift and your call in this holy season. Amen.