It is January 2020 at the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio. We are worried by portents of war in the Middle East. At home, our faith communities wrestle with the demands of security measured against the commandments of our faith – not to kill, to love our neighbours, even our enemies. The Gospel reading is from Matthew. The Magi seek the infant Christ. Herod seeks him, too. The Holy Family is warned to flee to Egypt, and the Magi return home by another road.
I am struck by the order of events in Matthew’s story of exile and exodus, the salvation history running through Jesus’ backstory like a pulled thread.
If Joseph was already warned to run before Herod’s soldiers arrived, then why did the wise men need to return by a different road?
Think about it: Even if they had returned to Herod, and told him where the baby lay, Herod would have searched and come up empty. The child was already gone.
It is almost as though the angel of the Lord, appearing to them in a dream, was warning them not so much as to trick Herod, but in order to protect the innocence, the idealism of the Magi from the East.
It is as though the wise ones, having once discovered and worshipped Jesus, found themselves unable, unwilling to betray him, even if it would make no difference, even if the way home would be shorter, even if it might have been safer, more politic; even if stopping by Herod’s palace might have replenished their treasure chests of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which they had emptied in an act of spontaneous worship and sacrifice at the feet of the little, holy family.
Either way, Jesus would have been safely away, bundled across the desert by night, by his frightened and faithful parents.
(Did they travel alone? Were others forewarned, by dream or by rumour, by well-connected neighbour, to flee the coming wrath? Was there a caravan of families lined up across the Sinai, seeking shelter across the river? History does not tell us much; we are left to our faithful imaginations.)
If the Magi had reported back to Herod, might it have deterred his murderous rage? It seems not. He still would not know where the child and his parents had gone. He would still scorch the earth beneath Bethlehem rather than risk allowing God’s Son to grow and challenge his comfortable status quo.
Nevertheless, the wise ones went home by another road, poorer, wiser, and more purposeful than when a star led their way.
Blessed, Jesus said later, are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
It should be no surprise that the Magi were advised by the angel to act on principle, if that is what they were doing by washing their hands of Herod. We follow a Christ who is the ultimate principled actor, who refused to bend his ethics of love and self-sacrifice to save his own life; who healed the ear of his enemy; who would not dirty his tongue by debating with Pilate what, after all, is truth; who would not give false witness to acquit himself of uncommitted crimes.
Some years ago, I read (in Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, by Philip Hallie) about a village commune in southern France dedicated to nonviolence, diverted by their Christian faith toward the active and/but peaceful resistance of evil. During the Second World War, as you might expect of such people, they sheltered Jewish refugees and hid them from harm, refusing to betray them to the authorities. To choose such a good seems on the face of it simple, although we might quietly ask our hearts whether we would have the courage to risk our own lives and liberty, to open our own homes to a stranger.
One passage that stuck with me always describes the conscience of the pastor’s wife, Magda Trocmé. Often enough, it was easy to put off the questions of the authorities without prevarication: not asking a refugee’s real name meant that one could not repeat it. But duplicity was unavoidable, the creation of fake id cards and ration books, for example: Magda
“[found] her integrity diminished when she [thought] of those cards. … She still [felt] anguish for the children of Le Chambon who had to unlearn lying after the war, and who could, perhaps, never again be able to understand the importance of simply telling the truth.” (Hallie, 126)
It is not as though Magda would ever have put her purity above the lives of the refugees that were saved by a few white lies. Instead, she has stayed with me because her scruples remind me of our hope for a kingdom in which one may do good without injury to the commandments of God’s covenant, in which it is not necessary to manage the wrath of Herod either by evasion or complicity or conquest; because she was not able to avoid Herod. There was no other road open to her.
The pastors of Le Chambon, André Trocmé and Edouard Theis, were not impractical nor impotent. They saved lives by their faithfulness, and their adherence to the way of peace. They were not passive pacifists. They knew that neutrality capitulates to evil. But, they preached,
“In attacking evil, we must cherish the preciousness of all human life. Our obligation to diminish the evil in the world must begin at home; we must not do evil, must not ourselves do harm. To be against evil is to be against the destruction of human life and against the passions that motivate that destruction.” (Hallie, 85)
The wise ones, having once found Jesus, the Saviour in a stable, the Messiah in a manger, God in his infancy, could not return to Herod’s court. They may not do harm to themselves, by betraying the love that they had found at his bedside. They may not do harm by consorting, even for a moment more, with the king of destruction, the murderer of innocents. They had to find another way home.
If we are people of the Epiphany, then we, too, are stargazers. We have been told, commissioned by angels and dreams, to find another road. We worship the Prince of Peace in a world at war. We would rather offer gifts of gold to helpless babies than bribes to politicians or kings. We find truth in the gospel of love rather than the mantra of success. We worship the God of the manger and the Christ of the Cross. We follow Christ through the empty tomb, knowing that the star can take us only so far.
We wonder, sometimes, what difference it makes. We struggle to find the straight path. We pray for God’s reign to come.
In the meantime, the holy family is once again on the road, seeking safety, and we have room at the inn. Let us seek and serve Christ, not in the starlit heavens alone, but in the street, and on the corner, in peace and in love, and as a stranger, taking the long road home.
Philip P. Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (Harper Collins, 1994)