“Out of Town Guests”
There is a massive Gothic Clock at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh Scotland and this clock is set 3 minutes fast in order to help people catch their trains on time. There is one exception to this 3-minute rule, for the last 118 years the clock has been set to the proper time on December 31st so that the community could ring in the new year at the proper time. This year the hotel decided not to reset the clock in order to have 3 minutes less of 2020.  Obviously this won’t really change the time, the sentiment however is understandable.
Our scripture is a familiar and beloved story. It beings in chapter two of Matthew. A king named Herod is sitting on the throne. This king was really a local official who had been installed by the Roman government in order to enforce the Roman laws. A group of Magi appear from the East, most likely a caravan of religious advisors from an area in Babylon or Persia. Western Christian Tradition places the number of Magi at three, Eastern Christian Tradition places this number at 12.  Whatever the number in this caravan, it is a group outside the Jewish faith that has come to pay homage to the new born king.
The direction from which the Magi come is important and is likely one of the reasons for Herod’s strong reaction. Herod had no fears about an attack from the West — the Roman Empire was to the West. But to the East he was greatly concerned of an attack. At one point he had to flee his throne and make his way to Rome, because of an invading army made of local dissidents and people invading from the East. As a result, Herod had a series of fortresses built all along the Eastern border and it was constantly guarded and monitored. He also worked on a hearts and minds campaign and sought out projects that that benefitted the Jewish people including rebuilding the temple. But his term on the throne was anything but peaceful; he was embroiled in internal conflicts with many of his own children vying for their seat on the throne.
Herod is frightened by the appearance of this caravan and scripture writes all of Jerusalem was frightened as well. Jerusalem is bracing to see how Herod, this violent leader, will react and what kind of strife it will cause. The Magi are called to appear before Herod and they explain their desire to meet the child known as the “King of the Jews”. This was a title Herod had already assumed and used regularly. The author of Matthew is wrestling with the question of who is truly the king? Is it the child whose birth was foretold by the angels, or the one on the throne appointed by Rome? Is it the one who uses his power to frighten and control, or the one who came as a humble child and taught about Love? Is the King the one who causes all of Jerusalem to react with fear, or the one for whom the Magi were overwhelmed with Joy when the saw him?
2020 has been a year that many of us would like to forget. David Kessler who cowrote the famed 5 Stages of Grief with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross reflected on our pandemic experience in a recent interview with Harvard Business Review. He shared that as a nation we are feeling many different griefs — grief over how the world has changed, grief over the loss of normalcy, grief over the loss of connection, fear about the economic toll. This is not something we have experienced as a nation in generations, the closest recent event would have been September 11, and how the world changed after that tragic event.
David Kessler describes what we are feeling as an anticipatory grief. We recognize that there is a storm out there, that it could make landfall in our life, but it may not. This perceived threat violates our sense of safety and our understanding of order. We are all trying to process this experience as we live through it. He shares that everyone processes this grief differently and it is not orderly or linear. We can see how they have shaped our national conversation. In the very beginning of this crisis there was a lot of denial, “the idea virus won’t affect us.” I remember a student telling me about it in February and thinking this was just something he read on Twitter. We have seen how some have experienced a level of anger; “You are taking away my activities.” Or how some experienced bargaining, “okay, two weeks home, maybe a month, and everything will be fine.” Many of us have experienced sadness, “the sadness of not knowing when this will fully end, when life will return to normal.” David Kessler shares that it is only through acceptance and finding meaning we will find health and wholeness.
Accepting that much of this pandemic is out of our hands, we can take care of ourselves, we can take care of our loved ones, we can take appropriate safety precautions. But much beyond that is out of our control. When those feelings of anticipatory grief become too much, we can pause, we can pray, we can take a deep cleansing breath, and we can come into the present moment and be mindful of what is around us. We can ask for help. In the midst of this grief we can search for meaning.
One of the ways I have found meaning is with my wife and children. I have probably spent more time with them in this last year, then at any other point in my life. I have also gone on more walks than the year before, read more books, and connected with old friends. I saw commentator call this the year of Zoom and flour; Flour based of the number people who have taken up baking.
As a nation we have continued to search for meaning in the midst of our corporate grief. The pandemic has been eye-opening for many. It has pointed out the financial inequality our nation is currently living with, and the tragic death of George Floyd has also forced us to reexamine how institutional racism has affected our community and nation.
The Magi search for the child and when they find Jesus they are overwhelmed by Joy. They pay homage to Jesus and offer gifts. This scene is truly breath taking, those outside the covenant are recognizing God’s love. These Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to leave for home by another road. They met the infant Jesus and a new road called them home, a road likely more difficult, less comfortable, and more dangerous.  This was driven by fear, but their encounter with Jesus changed the way they saw the world. Encounters with Jesus call us to new paths of understanding and compassion. This last year we have all dealt with grief and fear. Our work is to continue to be present with Jesus in the midst of this experience and work together to find meaning and build a better future.
 The NIV Application Commentary on Matthew, pg 94.