Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Grace and peace be with you my brothers and sisters, in the name of Christ, the dominion of heaven come near. Amen.
Just over 400 years ago a play premiered at Middle Temple Hall in London. It was a comedy of mistaken identities and reversals revolving around the story of Viola, a young woman shipwrecked on the shores of Ilyria, in what would now be called Albania. In the shipwreck Viola believes she has lost her twin brother, Sebastian, to the seas. Viola disguises herself as a man, calling herself Cesario, and enters the service of the local Duke, Orsino. Duke Orsino is in love with Lady Olivia – whose brother had also recently died – and he uses Viola (whom he thinks is a man) as his go-between to try and win Lady Olivia’s affections. But Lady Olivia falls in love with Viola (whom she thinks is a man), and makes a mess of things. The comedy gets thicker when Viola’s brother Sebastian finally shows up. Lady Olivia thinks Sebastian is Cesario (who was actually Viola) and falls in love. The two end up getting married, which leaves Duke Orsino out in the cold. In the meantime Viola has fallen in love with the Duke, who still believes she is a he. With the arrival of her brother, Sebastian, Olivia is free to reveal herself and in the end she is wed to Duke Orsino. All’s well that ends well.
The play was called “Twelfth Night, or What You Will,” and it was written by William Shakespeare. It took its title from the fact that Viola finds herself shipwrecked in Ilyria during the Twelfth Night celebrations, but more than that – the play itself is a dramatization of the essence of those celebrations.
If you can remember all the verses of that crazy Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” then you get a sense of the topsy-turviness of Twelfth Night. The twelve days of Christmas culminate with Epiphany, which we celebrate here today, but historically the period of revelry and celebrations between Christmas and Epiphany, known as Christmastide, were marked by all sorts of strange reversals of power. On Christmas Day a peasant would be chosen by lot to serve as the master of ceremonies for this strange period – in England he was known as the Lord of Misrule, in Scotland as the Abbot of Unreason, in the church as the Boy Bishop. For Twelfth Night the king and queen would become as peasants, and masters would act as servants to those who normally served them. For this brief period at the end of the year all the world’s social relations turned upside down. So a play about a woman posing as a man ending in a series of unlikely marriages would have fit right in.
And all of it fits right in with the dramas that unfold in scripture this morning, which are full of just as many strange reversals of power and surprising revelations.
The twelve days of Christmas began with the story of a strange birth, God made flesh and living among us in the form of a helpless infant born in a barn and attended to by shepherds. Last week we heard the story of Herod’s terrorism and the slaughter of the holy innocents and we got our first taste of how the world would respond to God’s reign – with violent power and attempts at control. Here at the end of the Twelve Days we get a story so strange it could have been another stage play.
A set of foreigners bringing the wealth of the nations appear in Judea to pay homage to the king of the Jews. This is odd and offensive behavior – coming to the court of King Herod to pay homage to someone else. Coming, in fact, to the King of the Jews to ask where they should look for the King of the Jews. These foreigners, whom we now call wise men, must have appeared somewhat foolish.
The child they seek is hidden in the remote community of Bethlehem, not in the capital city of Jerusalem, and they are sent off to look for him. What they discover when they locate the holy family isn’t a court like the one in Jerusalem, or a king like Herod, but instead Mary and her baby whom they bow down and acknowledge as royalty. Mary and her baby, like the peasant selected on Christmas Day to serve as the Lord of Misrule, are treated as royalty by those who have wealth and power.
In the world of theater this is a classic example of foreshadowing. All the grand themes of Jesus’ later life are hinted at here at the beginning. Jesus, as the herald of the dominion of heaven come near, will be seen as the Lord of Misrule – one who turns the social order upside down. Remember the words of our psalm, the description of God’s upside down order: the people are ruled righteously, the poor receive justice, the needy are defended, the oppressor is crushed, and all the nations are set in service of this vision – not just for a span of twelve days, but for all of time.
Like many other Christian traditions, the celebration of Twelfth Night often existed in other forms before the coming of Christianity. In Ireland the festival of Samhain had a similar tradition of role reversal. A century before the birth of Christ there was an annual winter festival in Rome called Saturnalia in which peasants and slaves were treated like free people, were exempted from punishment and were given leave to disrespect their masters. Some sociologists have pointed to these festivals, which occur in many cultures around the world, and proposed that they serve as a kind of pressure valve. Over the course of a year the anger and resentments of the poor and the needy build up and without some release they would eventually result in revolt – but with these festivals coming at the end of each year the working poor could blow off steam and get some symbolic relief from those who lived off their labor for a few days – before the world returned to normal and they were put back in their places.
Here in the days after Christmas and New Year’s Day we can be tempted to do the same. After hearing the prophet Isaiah all through the weeks of Advent pointing to the coming reign of God as the triumph of peace with justice in a warring, unjust world; after celebrating the incarnation of God with us on Christmas; we can be tempted to turn the page on our calendars, pack up our decorations and put everything back the way we found it.
But God has not come into the world to help us blow off steam. God has been made manifest among us for the healing and reconciliation of the world. God has come into the world full of ironies and reversals that are all the more shocking because they are not temporary, but eternal. In our communion hymn we will sing, “This is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing / come peasant, king, to own him / the king of kings salvation brings / let loving hearts enthrone him.” God in Christ is surrounded by the humble and the celestial, the rich and the poor.
The apostle Paul writes, “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:5-6). This is the key to the power of the revelation of God in Christ Jesus – that in this person we discover that God is for us, for all of us, forever.
If Christ were the Lord of Misrule for only Twelve Days, then our celebrations would be exactly what the sociologists have called it: a pressure valve to keep us from rising up and revolting against as system of life that separates us from each other – men from women, rich from poor, powerful from needy, insiders from outsiders, nation from nation. If Christ were Lord of Misrule for only the powerful then the dominion of heaven would be business as usual, and if Christ were Lord of Misrule for only the needy and the oppressed then God’s reign would not truly change the world, it would just change the places we occupy in it. What makes Christ the Lord of Misrule once and for all is that in Christ God casts aside the rules that
divide us and folds us into one family of which we are “fellow heirs,” one body of which we are all “members,” and one people living under the same promise of the gospel – that is, God’s gracious and unconditional love.
In theater, as in life, all’s well that ends well. The Duke gets a wife, the Lady a husband. Siblings separated by the storms of life are reunited on the shores of a foreign land during the festival of the Twelfth Night. Here, on this Twelfth Day of Christmas we discover that in Christ we, too, have come through the storm in order to be reunited with long-lost family, all of us. That is a surprising discovery, a light bulb going off in the back of your mind, an “a-ha!” moment. That is an Epiphany.