Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of our God has risen upon you...Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Isaiah 60: 1-3
A reflection on Mt. 2:1-12 by Laura M. Grimes
It may come as no surprise that I have plenty of sharp theological disagreements with the late Pope John Paul II. However, I personally consider one of his greatest achievements to be adding the “Luminous Mysteries” to the traditional Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries of the rosary.
This new set of scriptural meditation themes treats key episodes of Jesus’ adult life and ministry, previously neglected in the leap from the Finding in the Temple to the Agony in the Garden. The visit of the Magi celebrated on Epiphany is not one of the luminous mysteries, but two of them have traditionally been associated with it. All five fulfill and unfold the promise of Epiphany: the shining forth of God’s love in the world through Christ, for us, and through us. The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan; his turning water into wine at the Wedding Feast at Cana; the Proclamation of the Reign of God; the Transfiguration; and the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Each of these stories adds another facet to our understanding of the epiphany, the manifestation, of divine love in the world—and of the varying human responses to that profoundly challenging radiance.
One answer to God’s self-revelation in the newborn Christ comes from the Magi who endure arduous travel to a strange land to worship and offer gifts to the holy child. Another comes from Herod, massacring uncounted children in his determination to wipe out the one who threatened the power rooted in his corrupt bargain with the Roman invaders. We who hold power and privilege in this suffering, unjust world are always poised on the knife edge between the Magi and the Herod within as we face the growing demands for justice from the majority of the world, to whom it is denied. We too often take the path of Herod by engaging in violence of one sort or another to keep from handing over some of what we unjustly possess. And we often outsource the violence as he did to his troops, making it possible to lie to ourselves and others about the consequences of our choices.
Matthew’s story is familiar to us—probably too familiar, since we tend to read it through the lens of “We Three Kings” and the Nativity scenes that many churches and families have set up during this Christmas season. Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar: three gold-crowned kings and their accompanying camels, lending an exotic touch to the more mundane sheep and shepherds, ox and donkey. But none of the details usually taken for granted is actually present in the scriptural text. The Greek word Magi, often translated “Wise Men,” more accurately means astrologers or astronomers, likely from Persia, who observed the star and calculated its trajectory. (I am writing this from my college best friend’s house; a brilliant teacher of high school science and math, she just remarked that her favorite part of this feast is God revealing Godself to people who paid close and reverent attention to nature and to numbers).
The identification as kings probably came from the themes of the competing kingship of Herod and the child Jesus in the passage, as well as from Isaiah 60, the prophetic background text from which today’s Hebrew Bible lesson is taken. There is no mention of how many Magi were on the trip. Western Christians hypothesized three to correspond with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; but the Eastern Orthodox have traditionally assumed the popular scriptural number of twelve. And there is no reason to believe that all the Magi, any more than all the shepherds, were necessarily male, though Nativity scenes overwhelmingly make both assumptions. A moving portrayal of the whole world to which Christ came, shown in the racial diversity of the kings who represent the Gentiles in balance to the Israelite shepherds…until you notice that the world’s female population has only one representative.
A thin, blonde woman, garbed in immaculate blue to match her eyes, kneeling and gazing down worshipfully at the serene child in the manger. These artistic portrayals reflect misogynistic medieval visions—most of them, sadly, by female mystics—portraying the sacred and courageous labor of birth for every woman except Mary as a shameful punishment inherited from Eve and the locus of transmission of the sin of the world. The kneeling Barbie in the Nativity scene reflects those visions of Jesus painlessly teleporting out of his mother’s intact body, as he later materialized through locked doors after his resurrection. No more contrary picture could be found to the reality of birth, as anyone who has given birth or assisted another to do so will readily recall. An accurate portrayal would show the dark-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed, Jewish Mother of God lying sweaty and exhausted on the hay, her stomach still distended to appear four or five months pregnant and her loins dripping with precious blood. She would simultaneously delight in her child’s embrace and sigh with frustration as she missed her mother and tried to figure out how to wrestle her milk-swollen teenaged breast into his tiny squalling mouth.
Our seemingly harmless Nativity scenes obliterate the true identity of the woman of color whose love and courage made possible the Incarnation. And Christians, even those who pride ourselves on being progressive and committed to justice, likewise obliterate too often the shining reality of God’s image manifested in so much of the humanity that Jesus embraced. Men grudgingly share scraps of leadership in church and society with women. Whites continue our hegemonic assertion of normative humanity, verbally opposing injustice while enjoying its results and doing little to counter it. Straights sacrilegiously hog the rights, duties, and graces of both civil and sacramental marriage. The temporarily abled build an infrastructure which hurls roadblocks in the path of the disabled, then attribute these to physical or mental differences in the other rather than failure of creativity and courage in themselves. And we in the tiny percentage of the world that controls most of its wealth close our eyes to daily massacres of children through war, famine, and preventable disease which far outstrip Herod’s.
We who celebrate the luminous mysteries of Christ--the wise strangers who recognize his chosen status, the voice of God calling him beloved in the river and on the mountain, his proclaiming the overturning of the world’s structures and using his transforming power to begin that, and his self-gift in the humblest elements of his people’s ritual meal—are called to live those out in the world. To recognize the beauty and sacredness within ourselves and those who are different; to hear the voice of God naming all people as beloved; to overturn the unjust rule of the powers and principalities, beginning in ourselves; and to pour ourselves out for the world’s physical and spiritual hunger and thirst. And so our light will shine, and God’s glory will shine forth through and for us all.
Bio: Laura Grimes, who holds the M.A. and Ph.D. in theology from the University of Notre Dame, specializes in medieval women’s and modern feminist theology. She has worked as a crisis pregnancy counselor, a resident staff member at the South Bend Catholic Worker house, and a postdoctoral research associate at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto. She has taught theology, women’s studies, and history at Rosemont College, the University of Portland, and California State University at Fullerton. Laura is also a spiritual director and creator of expansive liturgical materials; a wife and mother of four; and the founding bishop of Sophia Catholic Communion, an independent Catholic jurisdiction.