A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on the 3 January 2021 by Revd Jonathan Evens.
Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6, Ephesians 3: 1-12, Matthew 2: 1-12
‘There was a star in the east.
Magi in their turbans brought their luxury toys
in homage to a child born to capsize their values,
wreck their equipoise.
A smell of hay like peace in the dark stable,
not peace however but a sword
to cut the gordian knot of self-interest,
the fool-proof golden cord,
for Christ walked in where philosophers tread
but armed with more than folly
making the smooth place rough
and knocking the heads of church and state together.’
Poets and musicians often understand the ironies of Christmas – the incomprehensible comprehended, poetry made hard fact, the helpless Babe who cracks the world asunder – better than the Church. This extract from Louis MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’ continues:
‘In honour we have taken over the pagan feast of saturnalia
for our annual treat,
letting the belly have its say,
ignoring the spirit whilst we eat.’
MacNeice identifies the journey of the Magi as the point in the nativity story when many of these ironies become particularly apparent. Visitors from the East came looking for Jesus in a palace but found him in a manger. The Magi looked for him at the heart of privileges won through personal power but actually found him in a place of poverty and dispossession. They went to a palace, to the seat of wealth and power but he was not to be found there. Instead he was found in obscurity, in the home of working people, in a place from which no good was known to come. The visitors from the East looked for a King according to their understanding of kingship but only found Jesus when they left that understanding of political power and rule behind to encounter a King whose every breath is service of his subjects. The Empire then struck back as, in a bid to protect their power-base, the men of power with their death squads spread their curse of appalling cruelty and wickedness across the world. Herod, threatened by the thought of a rival, sent his death squads to massacre all male children under two in Bethlehem forcing Mary, Joseph and Jesus to become refugees, settling in Egypt until Herod himself was dead.
Jesus was vulnerable in this way because he was on the edge, at the margins of society. The poet-priest Malcolm Guite put it like this:
‘Christmas sets the centre on the edge;
The edge of town, the outhouse of the inn,
The fringe of empire, far from privilege
And power, on the edge and outer spin
Of turning worlds, a margin of small stars
That edge, a galaxy itself, light years
From some unguessed at cosmic origin.’
The edge is the place where those who have been excluded or rejected or ignored by society or the Church are to be found. That Jesus is found there – is born there – speaks of the conviction that God’s heart is on the edge of human society. Not only so, but, also, that God is most evidently encountered among those in the margins and on the edge. Those on the edge are Christ to us; Jesus is seen in those who have been excluded or rejected or ignored by society or the Church. The edge is where we can receive all the gifts God is giving us, especially the ones that Church and society have for so long despised or patronised. Those who have been rejected are the energy and the life-force that will transform us all. The life of those with power within church and society is, as Sam Wells has said, ‘about constantly recognising the sin of how much we have rejected, and celebrating the grace that God gives us back what we once rejected to become the cornerstone of our lives.’
Our depictions of the arrival of the Magi are one example, among many, of the way in which rejection of others is built into our telling of the Christmas story. This week the National Gallery hopes to open its re-arranged immersive digital experience inspired by Jan Gossaert’s 16th-century masterpiece ‘The Adoration of the Kings’. This experience begins with the African king Balthasar’s voice setting the scene for the journey into this painting. Balthasar is one of the three Kings who travelled to Bethlehem to visit the new-born Jesus bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. He is Black, reflecting the resurgence by around 1500 of a tradition – dating back to the early days of Christianity – of including an African king. The Three Kings were often represented as rulers of each of the major parts of the world known at the time, Europe, Asia and Africa, emphasising the global reach of the Christian religion. We don’t know the exact reason for the resurgence of this tradition, but it is likely that a significant factor was the growing presence of Black people in Europe at that time, most of whom were enslaved.
Balthasar, this black Magus figure in the Nativity scene, was part of theologian Robert Beckford’s upbringing: ‘As a child,’ he has said, ‘the nativity scene always excited me. Not just because its appearance meant the closeness of Christmas presents, but because of the return of the black Magus.’ Yet he has come to realise that Balthasar has been inserted into the story because the story itself has been given an entirely white European perspective. That perspective reverses and rejects its original significance, but has become the default understanding. So, in Gossaert’s painting and most images of this story from the medieval period onwards, we have a white European Christ-child and his mother being visited a black man rather than the reverse which is actually more historically accurate.
Before Christmas, on the BBC World Service in a programme entitled ‘Black Jesus’, Beckford explored the impact Black Theology has had in raising awareness of these rejections, the implications for the church and whether seeing Jesus as black is having a revival due to the influence of black lives matter. In the programme this realisation came home most forcefully when Chine McDonald said, ‘When I pray I see a white man – that’s problematic’. It’s problematic because, as Beckford noted in the programme, ‘Jesus is a man of colour from the ancient near east’; an olive skinned Palestinian, not a blonde European.
If Jesus was a darker skinned Palestinian rather than a blonde European, we need to ask, as Beckford does, if ‘Jesus is a man of colour from the ancient near east’, how then ‘did we make him an Aryan and use that image to oppress other people?’ ‘Faith doesn’t stand outside politics,’ Beckford notes, ‘In fact it is a political move to separate the two.’ The problematic nature of this can be seen in the reality that, even today, a black woman like Chine McDonald still pictures a white man when she prays, even though this is a reverse of the image of God found in Jesus. We need those like Beckford and McDonald in order to return to a more historically accurate and theologically important picture and understanding of the Magi’s visitation.
The Magi’s visit is often called the Gentile Christmas; the overriding message being that learned, wise foreigners — the ultimate “outsiders” for Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience — came to pay homage to a new-born ruler, Jesus the Christ, whose spiritual power and wisdom surpassed their own. This is an appropriate interpretation of the story and Matthew’s intent, but, as we have seen, is one which we have come to picture in a way that is opposite to that which Matthew intended. As a result of the power of Medieval and Renaissance images and interpretations we see a white Christ-child visited by a black King.
When Isaiah tells of nations coming to the light of the one that we know as the Christ-child, we can picture all people of all nations drawn to a Christ who knew oppression on all levels. Christ was born under the oppression of Roman rule, escaped genocide by becoming a refugee and lived, as a migrant, in another country. All this is obscured if we then picture Christ as being one with the white European oppressors; but a Christ who, through his black identity, is seen to be one with the oppressed enables Christianity to be seen for what it originally and genuinely was, a religion of liberation – a religion of those on the edge.
The incarnation and this ‘Gentile Christmas’ reveal that God’s heart is on the edge of human society, with those who have been excluded or rejected or ignored; that God is most evidently encountered among those in the margins and on the edge. Those who have been rejected are seen to be the energy and the life-force that will transform us all. The life of the church is therefore, as we have noted, to be one of constantly recognising the sin of how much we have rejected, and celebrating the grace that God gives us back what we once rejected to become the cornerstone of our lives.
Gossaert’s ‘Adoration of the Kings’ doesn’t return us to the heart of what was rejected. The National Gallery’s ‘Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’’ experience helps us identify the problem but doesn’t quite return us there either. It is only with Beckford’s ‘Black Jesus’ that we are returned to an inclusive group of Magi visiting a black Christ and the full revelation that God is most evidently encountered among those on the edge.
Malcolm Guite writes:
Christmas sets the centre at the edge.
And from this day our world is re-aligned
A tiny seed unfolding in the womb
Becomes the source from which we all unfold
And flower into being. We are healed, The end begins, the tomb becomes a womb,
For now in him all things are re-aligned.
In him all things are re-aligned. Through Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection all that we once thought marginal to human life – all that we have rejected – has been shown to be essential: the way of compassion rather than the way of domination; the way of self-sacrifice rather than the way of self; the way of powerlessness rather than the way of power; the way of serving rather than the way of grasping.
Together with Robert Beckford and Chine McDonald, we would do well to rediscover all that is on the edge and which has been rejected. If we do so, we will be joining with the Magi – the wise ones – in their experience of adoring the black Jesus. Let’s wait a while there; after all, it’s been quite a journey for us to arrive at that place.