You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.
Picture, if you will, the house that you grew up in. Can you see it, rising up before you, the house that feels the most like your childhood home? Did it have shutters? A chimney? Stone walls or asbestos siding? Inside, was it brand-new, sleek and shining? Or was it old and quirky, with forgotten nooks and doors that led nowhere? Perhaps it was a row home in the city, where you could hear the rumble of the cars as they went by in the morning and the murmur of your neighbors through the walls in the evening. Maybe it was a home in the suburbs, built of brick, squat and square, a place where kids’ bikes piled up in driveways at dinner time and where neighbors had friendly competitions over the magnificence of their Christmas displays. Maybe it was an apartment where the smile of the doorman and the bing of the elevator were like welcome home greetings just for you. Or a farmhouse, where each morning you were awakened by a rooster’s cry and the knowledge that there were chores to be done before breakfast. Or maybe your childhood home was like mine, where there were just enough trees to make it feel like we were living in the woods, where the backyard felt expansive and magical and nearly as wondrous as the sight of the light glowing in the kitchen window at dusk, beckoning me inside.
But whether the houses we grew up in were ranchers or townhouses, mansions or cottages, they were ours – homes where we knew friends and family and learned to know ourselves. They were where we did our homework, practiced the piano, laughed at our father’s jokes, fought with our sisters, sought out our mother’s arms. They were the places where we found joy and suffered sadness, places where we just lived, each day, every moment. And in that day-to-day living, those houses, no matter their individual peculiarities, became familiar, normal, even ordinary.
It was in front of a home like this, a wonderfully lived-in, ordinary house, that the wise men found themselves at the end of their journey. They had traveled from the east, stopped off in Jerusalem to get directions, and wound their way south to Bethlehem, only to find this wondrous star that they had been tracking hovering over an ordinary house. That’s right – a house. There is no manger full of hay in today’s Gospel reading. The wise men from Matthew do not muscle into the manger scene from Luke. In Matthew, Joseph already lives in Bethlehem; there is no census, no journey, no innkeeper, no manger, no shepherds, no angels singing Gloria. No, Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown; it is where he first learned to work wood, it is the place where he first noticed Mary, where he first heard the angel speak to him in a dream. Bethlehem was the place where he lived and worked – and where he owned, we can assume, a very ordinary house.
It was, I imagine, small, simple, perhaps built into a hill as many ancient Palestinian homes were. Part cave, part house, with room for him to work, room for Mary to cook, room for their animals to take shelter. It probably looked like every other home in the quarter, with straw on the floor and oil lamps burning after dark. It was, all in all, a perfectly ordinary house. Except, of course, that this was a house with a newborn in it. And so it was a house filled with all of the busyness of a baby – diaper changes and midnight nursings, Mary’s joy when she bathed Jesus for the first time, Joseph’s fear when he held Jesus for the first time, visits from neighbors with words of blessing and the first-century equivalent of a casserole, crying, and sighing, and gazing, and wondering.
And yes, we know that this child was anything but ordinary. He was Jesus, the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit to save his people from their sins. But it is important for us to picture this extraordinary child in his very ordinary home, important for us to imagine the wise men’s arrival as something far more commonplace than a dramatic entrance at the stable door along with angels and oxen and shepherds on a Christmas Eve filled with midnight mystery and wordless wonder. No, in Matthew, the magi begin their journey sometime after Jesus was born, arrive in Bethlehem on an ordinary day, park their camels outside of an ordinary house. Perhaps the star they saw was a morning star, and it stopped over Joseph’s door in the hours just before dawn, when the house was still fast asleep. Or perhaps the star stopped in the sky just as the sun tucked itself behind the horizon, at dusk, when Joseph was putting away his tools for the night and Mary was getting out bread and wine for supper, the Son of God bouncing on her hip. There was no fanfare as the magi arrived, no angels singing, nothing so extraordinary as all that; just a holy family, a holy child, in a beautiful, ordinary home.
But when the wise men saw the child, what they did was extraordinary – they knelt down and worshiped him. In the middle of a perfectly ordinary room, before the child and Mary his mother, they fell to their exhausted knees and paid him homage. They saw Jesus in the midst of this ordinary life and knew him to be the Christ, and knew themselves to be in the presence of something, someone astonishing and holy. Right here – right in the living room – a miracle: the child born a ruler to shepherd the people of Israel. And in the magi’s profound act of recognition and worship, this simple, ordinary home was utterly transformed. A house became a palace, and Mary’s lap a throne.
Why should we imagine this story this way? Why is it important to set aside – just for a moment – that other story, that sweet, syncretic scene over there in our crèche? Because when we take Matthew at his word and listen only to his story, we are given a great gift – we are given the confidence that we can recognize Christ in the most ordinary of places. We can see Christ in an ordinary house, at an ordinary time, and we can see how his presence transforms all. Just as Christ’s presence in that simple home made the house of Joseph into the house of the Lord, his living presence among us changes everything. Christ’s presence in this ordinary church on Locust Street makes it into the temple of God. Christ’s presence at our ordinary altar makes it into the threshold of heaven. Christ’s presence on this ordinary earth makes it into the kingdom of God. And Christ’s presence in ordinary you and ordinary me makes us into bearers of his Grace, tabernacles of the living God, marked in our baptisms as Christ’s own forever.
Thank God. Because if we could only ever see Christ in places that were already wondrous and magical, if we only recognized him in places where angels were already singing and the glory of the Lord was already shining around, you and I would be sunk. If our eyes needed just the right setting, with the right lighting and the right amount of cozy, silent-night comfort to recognize the Son of God, you and I would have no hope.
But we do. Have hope. You and I. We have hope that we “may share in the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” We have hope that we can be bold bearers of God’s Grace, carrying the blessing of his presence with us wherever we go, to whatever home we travel, by whichever road. And we have hope that Christ’s presence here, in this ordinary world, will transform everything, is transforming everything, making homes for all of God’s beloved children here and beyond the gates of heaven.
Picture, if you will, the heart you’ve grown up with. Can you feel it, here? Is it soft and warm, or scorched and hard? Is it lonely, afraid, inspired, full to overflowing? Now picture that regular, ordinary heart as a home, as an amiable dwelling for our Lord Jesus Christ. Make that your offering this day and always – give him your heart, whether it is brimming or broken, to be a place where he may abide forever, an ordinary home where you and others may see him and recognize him as their Savior. For then, even without hearing the angel voices on an oh holy night, you, and all the world, can fall on your knees and worship him. And isn’t that extraordinary?
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
5 January 2014, The Second Sunday after Christmas
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia