An image came into my mind this week, and once it got in, I had trouble getting it out. I saw a mother holding a baby. It could have been a mother who had to feed her infant son through a chain link fence at an immigration detention centre. It could have been a mother on a reserve here in Canada watching over her baby as she sleeps for fear she will be taken by SID as so many of her neighbours’ children have been. It could have been a mother in Zambia, HIV-positive herself because of an unfaithful husband, waiting anxiously to find out if her baby had the disease. It could have been a Rohingya mother, carrying her twin newborn infants in a basket, having fled from Myanmar soldiers intent on killing them. But what I saw in that brief, flashing image, was a world leader bowing down before that mother and that child, not just to acknowledge that child’s important place in the world and in history, but more – to ask for forgiveness.
A popular song for Epiphany goes: “When the kings and the shepherds have found their way home, the work of Christmas has begun”. Until the leaders of IS/Daish cells all over the world bow down before the children of those they have sought to rape, maim and murder, the work will not be done. Until Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi kneels and presents offerings of contrition and repentance to the mothers of those Rohingya who have died, the work of Christmas is still to be done. Until the Presidents of the USA past and present kneel before the children they have incarcerated and beg their forgiveness, the work will not be done. Until Canada’s Prime Ministers, Premiers and Government Leaders humble themselves before the First Nations children they have persistently wronged – even fighting against their representatives in court! – the work will not be done. You and I can think of many other leaders, and many other children in places where repentance and reconciliation are needed.
I am speaking metaphorically of course, but imagine if all across the world tomorrow there were images in national newspapers and on TV and computer screens of leaders kneeling before children and their parents – publicly humbling themselves before the vulnerability of those who have been under their power. There is wisdom in the story of the Magi – the traditional legend of three wealthy, perhaps even royal, scholars – who chased after an event so colossal it changed the night sky, and then found themselves on their knees before a child. If they were indeed powerful, they knew enough to humble themselves in the face of divine vulnerability. If they were indeed wise, they knew that to honour the vulnerable, the innocent, the child is the most powerful teaching of all.
If we saw those images in these days of media spin, we’d likely shrug our shoulders and dismiss them with contemporary cynicism, as just another political stunt. Cuddling up to babies has been a part of political maneuvering for as long as any of us can remember! But if those images were followed by action – real acts of contrition, repentance and reconciliation – then what a change that would be!
Do I think our federal government is going to actually start taking its responsibility to First Nations children seriously? Not unless we make them, because it will cost millions, even billions, and unless taxpayers say we want it to happen, it won’t happen. And that would be far easier to change than to cause any of those other leaders to wake up and smell the poop they’ve been smearing around and clean it up – although I have to acknowledge there have been some efforts toward family reunification south of the Border, thank goodness. What would it take to make our world leaders humble themselves and take on the responsibility of protecting, caring for and lifting up the most vulnerable among us?
To return to the story, the idea that these Magi were foreign kings, leaders with power and influence, comes from a reference in Isaiah 60 – a passage often read during the season of Epiphany. It goes in part like this:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you. ….
Foreigners shall build up your walls,
and their kings shall minister to you;
for in my wrath I struck you down,
but in my favour I have had mercy on you.
Your gates shall always be open;
day and night they shall not be shut,
so that nations shall bring you their wealth,
with their kings led in procession.
….The descendants of those who oppressed you
shall come bending low to you,
and all who despised you
shall bow down at your feet;
they shall call you the City of the Lord,
the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.
…..You shall suck the milk of nations,
you shall suck the breasts of kings;
and you shall know that I, the Lord, am your Saviour
and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
…I will appoint Peace as your overseer
and Righteousness as your taskmaster.
Violence shall no more be heard in your land,
devastation or destruction within your borders;
you shall call your walls Salvation,
and your gates Praise.
This too, is clearly metaphor – a metaphor for abundance. It’s about a land rebuilt and a people reborn. “Those who oppressed and despised you,” says the prophet, “Shall bow down at your feet”. Interesting that there’s even a nursing image in the psalm – the infant people will be fed by the nations and more specifically, by their leaders.
Instead of bringing death and oppression, foreign leaders who have beaten these people down will bring food and nourishment; they will protect and care for those who are vulnerable and in need. The hallmarks, after all, of good leadership in the Bible are justice, righteousness, and peace, as well as acknowledgement and praise of what God has done for the people. Foreigners who do good toward the Jewish people are still called “Yad Vasham”,” the “righteous among the nations”. The leader who bows before the needy vulnerable child is indeed, righteous. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures bear witness.
The work of Christmas is not done until those of us in democratic countries insist on leaders who stand for justice, peace and righteousness, and until we are willing to take our own actions and to pay the bills to make those things happen. The work of Christmas is not done until tyranny and terrorism are ended in this sometimes terrifying world– a long, tall order but that’s the vision the Bible gives us, repeatedly. This is not accomplished by our hand alone – but by the powerful and redeeming love of God, working in the world by the witness of Christ and the movement of the Holy Spirit.
We were reminded in last week’s reading that people can change, despite proverbs to the contrary. I’ve also been reminded many times in my reading over the last year that when I see someone who has made choices that are just plain wrong, in and of themselves, or that indirectly lead to evil in the lives of others, that I must remember that that person too, was once a child – and that something must be deeply hurting and broken in them to produce such destructiveness or lack of empathy. What happened in that child’s mind, or body, or spirit, to produce those actions? If there is something that has been hurt, is it not possible that it can be healed? If there is something that is broken, can it not be mended? If it is not possible in that individual, perhaps it is possible in their children, or their followers, or their disciples. Do we believe in the power of God to heal the human heart? It is only transformed hearts that will transform the world. Inner change precedes outer change, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about both those things.
God CAN change hearts – we know that to be true. Slavers have become advocates for ending slavery; violent gang members have become youth workers leading reconciliation missions; addicts have gotten clean and sober and stayed that way; anti-gay attitudes have been transformed to total inclusion; confirmed atheists have let God into their lives; fearful, timid souls have become crusaders for justice; fundamentalists have realized that their worldview cannot hold and found a more generous way to practice their faith. A terrorist or a tyrant, a narcissist or a nihilist are tougher nuts to crack, but nothing is impossible with God.
I wonder what changed in the hearts of those wealthy visitors, already counted wise? I wonder what they learned when they encountered a heavenly human being in an ordinary peasant’s home, and not in a palace or mansion? I wonder what was in their hearts as they made the long journey homeward, having knelt before that little child and presented their gifts? What happened when they stooped to worship God revealed in earthly vulnerability instead of unearthly might? What happens to us when we do the same? I wonder. We keep working out that mystery, as Christian people, living out of our sacred stories, letting them mold us, challenge us, teach us from day to day, week to week, year to year. May God’s story, which becomes our story, continue to mold us in the year to come. Amen.
* ni•hil•ist /ˈnīələst,ˈnēəlist,ˈnihilist/
1. a person who believes that life is meaningless and rejects all religious and moral principles.