The Innocent and the Exiled

Sunday 8th January 2012
Year B, The Epiphany
St Peter's, Woodmancote

(Read aloud T. S. Eliot The Journey of the Magi)

The first five lines of T.S. Eliot's poem, the Journey of the Magi are taken from the sermon preached before King James I on Christmas day 1622 by one time Bishop of Chichester and by then Bishop of Winchester, Lancelot Andrewes whose conclusion was that in his day nobody would set out on such a journey as the Magi but would wait, he said, at least until Easter; and, if he thought that of an age when people were still dying for their particular version of the Christian faith, when would we set out? We would probably wait until the weather was at its best and then, fearing the onset of late Summer storms, we would probably leave it for another year.

The story of the Magi is a beautifully woven piece of Gospel narrative written by Matthew who usually lags a long way behind Luke and John in his narrative and symbolic artistry. The first thing to be noticed is that the wise men saw a star, probably a comet in 5 BC by our calculations but, rather than jotting the observation down in a log, they somehow grasped the significance of what was happening and set out in the direction of Palestine, subjecting themselves to unaccustomedly hard conditions; they were, after all, accustomed to lightly clad ladies handing round sherbet. The second thing to notice is that they persisted until they finally reached Jerusalem where they had their first brush with the religious and political establishment which was very self aware of the Messianic Bethlehem tradition. The third and most obvious point is that these Gentiles worshipped Jesus and gave him presents. And the final point is that a number of innocent children were judicially murdered in order to keep King Herod safe in his power.

In summary, to use slightly different words which will better suit our purpose, this is a story of vision, pilgrimage, worship, sacrifice and suffering. This, then is a story which contains all the major elements which are to recur throughout Matthew's Gospel and we would do well to mark these stages. The first, the vision, encapsulated in the idea of the star, is a rather strange idea to us.  Some Christians do have a "born again" experience but most of us probably grew up with Jesus and so it is easy to take the wonder for granted and then, of course, if we don't experience wonder, the pilgrimage is more daunting. The Magi were so struck by their vision that they would not stop, no matter how fractious the camels and their drivers, something very profound drove them on. And it follows, surely, that the worship and giving of gifts at the journey’s end is a much more profound experience than turning up here on a Sunday morning, as a matter of routine rather than pilgrimage; and, finally, when the main characters in this drama disperse, making a fool of King Herod as they do, we are left with the slaughter of innocents and the exile of the Messiah, experiences which are even more alien to us than vision and pilgrimage. Every day we are the spectators - and not always innocent at that - of the slaughter of innocent children and the exile of those who  fear for their lives.

The story which Matthew tells us is very much about public Christianity, about academics and politicians, about open worship, about the joy the Magi experienced at being in the right place at the right time; and the cost to the little children and the family of Jesus for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This country has a shameful tradition of despising foreigners which is now reaching a level of collective, officially sanctioned hysteria; and now there is an extremely ugly campaign, also officially sanctioned, for the comfortable to blame the poor for their poverty which even goes so far as to accuse people with disabilities, en masse, of being scroungers. The current economic down-turn is making us coarse and callous, finding any means to persuade ourselves that we are not called upon to live in solidarity with all our neighbours, whether we like them or not, for there is something clearly distinctive about love, as opposed to liking, which is that we must make a particular effort to love those we don't like.

And the moral of this story is that no matter what our political inclinations may be, we must be careful not to put our partisan ends above Christian principle: The Magi were not bamboozled by King Herod; Lancelot Andrewes was not intimidated by the nasty religious politics of his age; and our own Bishop Bell, without whom Eliot's poem might not have been written, put himself out on a limb, against just about the whole nation, by opposing carpet bombing in the Second World War.

In thanking God that most of us will never be called upon to be so heroic, we might wish to concentrate on the vision and the pilgrimage; if we do that sincerely and persistently, then the worship and the sacrifice will come better into focus; and we might then know better how we are responsible for the innocent and the exiled. After our encounter with Jesus we, like the Magi, should never again be comfortable.