Second Sunday after Christmas; 3 January 2021; Christmas 2 (RCL); Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:1-12.
Jeremiah is writing at the end of the southern kingdom, watching as Jerusalem’s hierarchy consumes itself and Babylon approaches. And yet, he is imagining a time when God will restore not just Judah, but Israel as well. All those who went into exile from the northern kingdom when it was conquered by Assyria will come streaming to Zion, presumably when the exiles from Judah come back from Babylon. It’s a remarkable inclusive vision, and one which would be lost on Ezra and Nehemiah, who desired to set up a much more exclusive reality at the return.
The prophets of the return (especially the latter parts of Isaiah) would extend Jeremiah’s vision, and see all the nations streaming to Zion to worship God. Isaiah 60 sees the camels of Midian and Ephah and Shebah coming to Zion with gold and frankincense for the worship of God, as well as the exiles from both kingdoms streaming back to Jerusalem. Matthew clearly had these prophecies in views when he wrote the story of the visit of the magi. I’m sure that’s how we come portray the magi arriving on camels — which Matthew doesn’t mention.
Writing as he does after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, Matthew has the nations streaming to Jesus, the new point of contact between the divine and human. Gold and frankincense were used in the Temple cult. But myrrh? It’s not mentioned in any of these prophecies.
John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was embalmed with pounds of myrrh, aloe, and cassia. Whether Matthew knew of this tradition is not clear — he doesn’t mention it in his crucifixion story (although he does mention the women preparing aromatics).
If Matthew intends the myrrh to have reference to embalming, we have a profound bit of foreshadowing here. Not only is Matthew hinting at Jesus’ death, but also connecting it directly to his royal and divine status. The collect for this Sunday is one of my favorites in the Prayer Book: O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen. If the divine Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, share our humanity, it means nothing unless he shared it entirely — even to death. All of the damage that we have done since our attempt to be like God (taking as if owed to us the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) God has taken into the divine life in the incarnation of the Word.
Where we saw the need for vengeance, God saw the need for reconciliation, which can only happen when the harm is owned. For us to share in the divine life, we have to be willing to live our humanity, our finitude, knowing that through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, the whole mess of it has been taken into the divine life. This has profound consequences for the way we live now. Getting our own back is not divine, but embracing the damage done in order to reverse it is the way of life. Of course, we are not God, and there are some human situations we cannot heal, but rather, for our own life and safety must walk away from, but vengeance is out. God has redeemed the worst we can do by simply taking it into the divine life, so that we too may have a place there in the self-gifting love of the Trinity.
Matthew knew this truth, and signals it with the gift of myrrh, even at the birth of Christ. We live between the limits of birth and death, but because Jesus shared our life, we also share his life beyond those limits.