Auden, Magi, and the World We Live In
Bonnie A. Perry
January 8, 2017
The Magi, the wise ones from the East, the gentiles, the strangers, the ones who neither look like them, dress like them, or sound like them, appear in the seat of government, the throne room of power and ask, not for the current ruler, but the new ruler, the one whose recent birth has been foretold in the stars.
They come to the ones, who have the most to lose, and say where might that new ruler be? Pray tell. We’ve journeyed long and travelled far keeping watch of a brilliant, bright morning star.
It’s really, really hard, not to hear this story and not just go in our mind’s eye to plaster figurines: little ones, big ones, broken ones, all in static poses. It’s hard not to get stuck on the statues and consequently miss the invitation for a revolution. Pretend for a minute that you took this story seriously. I mean really seriously.
Imagine for a moment that an envoy from China arrived next month in Washington and went first to the state department, then maybe the White House and said, we understand a new president is coming soon and we’d like to pay our respects. The State Department and White House reply: Yes, yes make an appointment and we’ll work you into his schedule. After all you are one of our major trading partners and you do hold 1.1 trillion dollars of our debt. We can get you in.
To which the visitors from the East reply we don’t want to meet with your current president. We want to meet with the one who will replace him. Where can we find that person? Imagine now the Politico, Fox, MSNBC, CNN twitter spree a conversation like that might inspire.
The naiveté, audacity and frankly, the stupidity of the visitors in Herod’s court is mostly lost on us, because not one of our manger scenes or Christmas pageants portrays the second event that happens after the magi leave Herod’s court. We lovingly tell of the first event. The story of the wise ones finding the baby who has been foretold. There he is in backwater Bethlehem, as the prophet Micah promised, in house under the star. They come, they see, they give thanks, because it is all clear to them, they drop off their gifts, and having been warned in a dream, they return home by another route. End of story.
Except it’s not.
For power has been challenged. Might has been provoked. And Herod responds.
In his 1942 poem, For the Time Being, W.H. Auden offers this as to why Herod says he must kill the Christ Child.
Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish... The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.
My friends, the Magi, are the opening salvo of Matthew’s Gospel that makes it perfectly clear that Jesus of Nazareth’s mission and ministry is all about, as theologian Anna Case-Winters says, confronting elite authorities, privileging the powerless, welcoming all from the margins: strangers, outsiders, refugees, women, men, children, (Belief Commentary: Matthew pp 30-31). Our God, came to the least and scared most the best.
As we enter into this new year, baptizing little Julia [at our 11:00 service], who will turn 18 in 2034. What type of world do we wish to offer her and all of the little ones who look like her and all the little ones who look nothing like her. What type of world do we wish to offer to these innocents?
That then is the question for us on this day of Epiphany.