Unexpected People Welcome

Ever since I was a child my favorite time of the year has been Christmas. Since the beginning of November, my dad would ban any music that was not Christmas music from our home. We always decorated on Veteran’s Day after having breakfast together at some restaurant. Since my mom has worked as a nurse in the Puerto Rico VA Hospital for years she always had that day off. Part of our decorating was placing over 100 nativity scenes my dad had collected from around the world all over the house. When I was younger we celebrated “Noche Buena” or Christmas Eve at my widowed grandma’s house with our whole family from my dad’s side. We would then visit my grandparents from my mom’s side on the 25th.
 
After my grandma passed away, that celebration moved to my parent’s house. If that wasn’t enough, January 6th was probably the biggest day of the Christmas season: el “Día de los Reyes” or Three Kings Day. Before going to bed on the 5th, my parents would go out with my sister and I to pick up grass for the camels. Although traditionally children all across Latin America and Spain place the grass in a box under their bed to then find it replaced by the Three Kings with a gift, we would place it under our Christmas tree with bowls of water. The next morning, we would wake up to find gifts from the Three Kings and spend all day playing, always pausing at some point to hear the Biblical story of the arrival of the Magi once more.
 
When I was four, we moved to New Jersey, but even there the Three Kings always found their way to our home. I remember worrying about the camels having to face the cold weather of the North East. If the 6th fell on a week day, my parents would send us to school on the 5th with a letter addressed to our teachers excusing us from school the next day.  When kids asked me why I missed school I would explain it was for Three Kings Day. They would ask, “What is Three Kings Day?” My response as a child would be, “Another day to get gifts!” When asked why, I would proudly respond, “Because I’m Puerto Rican!”
That is partly true! Three Kings Day is a huge day of celebration in every Puerto Rican’s home. It is part of our culture and a loved tradition. It has been a huge part of Puerto Rican culture since the first Celebration of the Kings in the town of Juana Diaz on January 6, 1884. Today that celebration is the biggest Three Kings Day celebration in Latin America and the world. The event expanded outside of Puerto Rico with the purpose of spreading the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ around the world. This mission has taken the Three Kings of Juana Diaz to every town of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, multiple states of the United States, Venezuela, Mexico, Spain, Italy, and the Vatican in Rome in 2004 for a meeting with pope John Paul II.
 
That is why I spent the week before January 6, 2018 in Puerto Rico leading a project called “Los Reyes Magos Existen” (The Three Kings Exist). We visited 6 towns who were left extremely vulnerable after Hurricane Maria to spread hope and joy to children and their families. If I was a kid again in Puerto Rico, I could deal with a lot of what the hurricane has caused. But if the Three Kings forgot me, that would have destroyed my innocent heart. After giving out close to 2,000 toys, taking hundreds of pictures, and singing and praying with children and their families my prayer is that these children know that they are not forgotten: not by God and not by the Church.
That brings me to something I have discovered in recent years. Yes, being Puerto Rican is a huge part of why I celebrate Three Kings Day, as I did yesterday and all last week. But in recent years I have come to realize that this day is way bigger than Puerto Rican culture and Juana Diaz. Three Kings Day has been part of Christianity for hundreds of years, known in the Church calendar as Epiphany. It is the day Christians all around the world commemorate the arrival of the Magi. One longstanding Christian tradition is to not include the Three Kings in the Nativity scene until the Day of Epiphany. That is why our Nativity scene this morning does not have the Magi.

 

Part of the reason we do this is to allure to the fact that the Magi were not present in the manger. The passage we read begins like this, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” It then goes on to mention that they arrive to see Jesus at a house where he was with Mary. Historians believe Jesus was from 1-2 years old at this point.
 
The Magi enter the story of Christmas later on. We do a disservice to our celebration of the story of Christmas by wrongly adding the Magi to the Nativity scene instead of patiently waiting to dive into this unique part of the story after the 12 days of Christmas, December 25 – January 5. This story is unique for many reasons, but today, as we celebrate Epiphany and remember the fact that our God became human, I want to pinpoint one very important aspect of this part of the story. The story so far has been full of the unexpected! Jesus is not born in Jerusalem, the center of power, but in in the impoverished town of Bethlehem. He is not born in a palace, but in a smelly cave full of animals. He is not born to people of influence, but to two peasants. From the moment of his birth, Jesus is turning things upside down.
 
One chapter later another group of unexpected characters enters the story. So far, every character in the story has been Jewish. The wise men presented in chapter 2 are not. They are gentiles! What our English Bibles translates into wise men is the Greek word magos which actually means astrologer.  They are nameless and we do not know how many they are, despite the fact that they are three according to Western Christian tradition. They are strangers, foreigners from a different land. They are unexpected characters! I mean, what is more unexpected than a group of foreigners/strangers who practice astrology, which would be considered pagan, being part of the greatest story ever told.

 

The aspect of the Magi being gentiles or non-Jews is captured in Christian tradition. According to tradition, three Wise Men arrived at the home of Jesus. The first was Melchior. He was the Sultan of Arabia. Of the three Wise Men, he is the oldest and also the shortest. He is usually portrayed having a long white beard and wear elegant crimson robes. Melchior’s gift to Jesus is gold which was much used by the Hebrews for the Temple and was plentiful in the time of David and Solomon. Years ago, golden coins were worth more than any other coins. It was associated with power. In that time paper money, or dollars, did not exist. The gold Melchior brought to Jesus is symbolic. By placing gold before the feet of the Christ child he was recognizing the one who would have more power than all the kings of the earth, the one who would become the King of Kings.  

The second was Balthazar. He was a Nubian King and the ruler of Ethiopia. He is usually portrayed dressed in exquisite robes. His gift was myrrh, a precious and aromatic resin that comes from the bark of thorny African trees and symbolized suffering. Myrrh was a precious commodity in the Middle East. It is a perfumed substance that the ancients used as a precious balm. It comes in the form of tears and has a reddish color. Here, then, characteristics that can turn myrrh into a symbol of man: the red color would represent the blood, the tear shape would represent the pain. Myrrh would thus symbolize the blood and pain of man becoming a balm for mankind. The myrrh Balthazar brought to Jesus is symbolic. By placing myrrh at the feet of the Christ child he was recognizing Jesus was the Son of Man who would suffer and shed his blood to save the suffering humanity. 

The third was Gaspar. He was the Emperor of the Orient and ruler over all oriental lands. He is usually portrayed with clothes gilded in gold. My gift was frankincense, an exceedingly aromatic gum used in the sacred incense for the Temple service. It is distilled from a tree in Arabia. Frankincense was priceless and a gift for Kings and symbolized prayer. It was burned in temples to honor God. The frankincense Gaspar brought to Jesus is symbolic. By placing frankincense before the feet of the Christ child he recognized that Jesus is the one that all would come to recognize as the true God.    

In the story, the main characters are unexpected. Peasants, foreigners, and pagans are at the forefront of the miracle of God becoming human. This pattern continues throughout the whole gospel. God is welcoming all into this story, especially those who you would least expect. By becoming incarnate in this environment, God associates himself with the lowest of society. This is what scares King Herod and leads him to kill hundreds of children in search of the Christ child. This is what continues to scare people of power today who either discredit the gospel or abuse it for their own gain. This great reversal where the lowest and most unexpected people have a preferential seat at the table is an affront to societies built on economic gain and positions of influence.

I love Eugene Peterson’s translation of John 1:14 in the Message: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” God moved into the worst neighborhood and invited the most unexpected people into the story. And he continues to do so. Just like he invited peasants such as Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds and pagan foreigners such as the Magi, God continues to invite the poor, immigrants, and ethnic/religious minorities to be part of the story.

As the body of Christ, we are called to continue to move into the worst neighborhoods and invite the most unexpected to be part of the story. The story of Jesus’ birth tore down walls and barriers set up by human selfishness. Who are we to build up those walls again and decide who is worthy of being part of this story and who isn’t?

Today, I challenge all of us to think of those around you who in our eyes might not be expected to be part of God’s story or might even feel unwelcome. It might be an immigrant living on your same street. It might be a gay coworker or family member. It might be the homeless person you drive by every day on your way to work. It might be the person who waits for you at your favorite Mexican restaurant that might not speak English very well. It might be your Muslim or Hindu neighbor. Maybe it’s that person in church who affiliates with the other political party.

Whoever it might be, what is stopping you from moving into their neighborhood or life and inviting them into the story of God? You might think change needs to happen in order for them to be a true follower of Christ, and that is true of all of us. But the change part is up to the Holy Spirit. We are called to share the Good News. We were once un-welcome and unexpected characters of the story too. Are you willing to become uncomfortable as the God of the universe was when God became human in the person of Jesus? The story of Christmas challenges us to break down the walls and reminds us that all of humanity is welcome to the table. The story of Christmas reminds us that all of creation is part of the story of God. The story of Christmas reminds us that God is indeed making ALL things new.
 
Written by:
Néstor Hernández, Associate Pastor of Youth and Community Life

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