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Another Way

Lectionary Reflections for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day (A)

By Bill Wylie-Kellermann

 

Readings for Second Sunday after Christmas, Year A, Jan. 2, 2005

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

 

Isaiah of the exile announces so abruptly this dawning of light in history, that scholars wrinkle their brows and cast doubt: how could this be the same voice as in the preceding chapters? It must be inept redaction at the very least. Surely the one who recites that prior drumbeat litany of transgression and judgment, whose promises sound more like threats, cannot be the same person who turns around to testify the dawn of return. Some new writer must have rushed the breech. Indeed. As though the light of hope could not break so suddenly in heart or history. As though only an incrementally progressive hope, something more realistic, akin to a studied optimism, could abide. As though judgment and true hope ought not be so closely pressed, or the one arise from the other. Well, surprise. There it be, I believe – in the prophet's single voice.

In a season of darkness such as our own, the drumbeat rings so true, the prophetic truth-telling strikes so timely. But our imaginations are in bondage, if we cannot also envision a break so sudden. A hope, a dawn, a turning of the world toward light.

In Isaiah, the homecoming featured is so overwhelming that the whole world seems swept along in its movement. Universal, as they say, and bordering on cosmic. A pilgrimage, general and complete, is in motion. It is not merely exiles who make for Jerusalem, but peoples and rulers, nations and authorities all.

Say it aloud, though such passages get marshaled to sanction empire, this is its very opposite. If anything, an imperial parody is a foot. Subversive inversion. The scattering of exile is healed in a global accompaniment of the displaced. Empire's sucking centralized theft is reversed by gift.

Say it aloud, though such passages get marshaled to sanction empire, this is its very opposite. If anything, an imperial parody is a foot. Subversive inversion. The scattering of exile is healed in a global accompaniment of the displaced. Empire's sucking centralized theft is reversed by gift.

The magi, of course, carry a similar freight in Matthew's more modest telling. They act the very embodiment of Isaiah 60. Are these aliens in the land? They stand for all nations and peoples outside of Israel. Do we see them as kings? They kneel on behalf of all authority. Do they bear gifts? Thoughtfully packed from the ancient text. Then Matthew adds his ironies, bitter as myrrh and scented with passion: the imperial hand, displeased, has already conceived a strike force.  

In the gospel narrative, the imperial reversal, really a choice, is explicit. Their treasures are not for the palace, so accustomed to drawing tribute and taxes, but for a child at the margin. And though Herod, the imperial puppet king, would lure them into his homeland security surveillance apparatus (and the violence for which it fronts), they quietly demure. Compared to his duplicity, their single-hearted yearning seems almost naive. But they are wise to serpents. These first resisters of the New Testament slip the grip of his scheme. Prompted by dream epiphany, the magi go, what Matthew calls, “another way.”

The Ephesians text is emphatic about its imperial location: prison. For this community, imprisonment is not so much humiliation as authenticating credential. It is invoked up front. By analogy, one thinks of Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail – which names a violence hidden for ages now made known and exposed to the light of day. Or one could mention more current prisoners. I think of friends Carol Gilbert, Ardeth Platte, and Jackie Hudson now beginning their third year for the Sacred Air and Space Plowshares. Their lives and voices ring with a common authority.

The Paul of Ephesians has a vocation of stewardship – oikonomia – from which our word “economy.” He calls himself in effect the “economist of grace.” (See Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians ). Could anything be further from the imperial than such a gift economy? The concrete mystery of “all peoples and nations” also preoccupies Ephesians. It attests to a hidden truth come suddenly to light: Jews and Gentiles are both 'partakers' in the promise. By “partaking,” a meal is implied. They sit at common table. In light of Christ, the “dividing wall of hostility” (2:14) no longer comes between. To this degree, Epiphany is a feast of racial or cultural reconciliation. Only add that the “principalities and powers” of racism and nationalism seem ignorant of the truth. They revive the hostility and rebuild the wall. That is why we, as the church, are admonished to make known to them the wisdom of God (3:10).

Arise, dear friends, and shine.

 

Bill Wylie-Kellermann is a program director for the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) in Chicago, Ill. He is also on the steering committee of Word and World: A People's School. He lives in Detroit, Mich., with his partner, Jeanie (who served as editor of The Witness from 1989-98), and their daughters, Lydia and Lucy. Bill is a regular contributor to The Witness, and may be reached by email at bill@scupe.com.