No matter your tradition, we have by now arrived at the end of Christmas. Some take down the decorations just as soon as the 25th has expired and the family has left. Others let the light and fragrance (whether real or added synthetically) linger a few days longer before being claimed by the boxes and the attic for another year. Still others, myself included, refuse to let Christmas end until Epiphany on January 6th, the proper end of the twelve days of Christmas. Past this point, one risks becoming the butt of “permanent decoration” jokes which seem to haunt my Deep South homeland in particular.
Perhaps, however, there’s a little gospel hiding in those out-of-season lights and garlands. After all, some of the most famous entrants in our nativity scenes were horrifically late to the Christmas party. Matthew’s gospel tells us that magi, most likely practitioners of what many today would call astrology or even sorcery, learned of Hebrew prophecies concerning the expected Messiah and come to pay homage. Today, Epiphany, is the yearly celebration of the magi’s visit. Despite their (woefully inaccurate) inclusion in nativity scenes, the logistics of ancient travel and a few details afforded to us in Scripture indicate that the magi arrived anywhere between forty days and two years after the birth of Jesus. “Fashionably late” had long since come and gone.
The singular devotion of the magi fascinates and inspires me. They likely knew full well that they would substantially miss the “newborn” window,and yet they continued anyway because this Christ was that important. The celebration of the Messiah was so reality-shifting as not to be bound in by a calendar, warranting an arduous and possibly life-threatening journey long after Jesus was actually born. Though I have no clue where the magi stood on what we today call social justice issues, the magi seem to share the same heart as African-American theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman in a litany found in his The Mood of Christmas. Thurman’s words and the magi’s journey both preach the same message: the expiration of Christmastide does not signal an end, but a beginning. Reality has shifted forever, and our lives must change accordingly.
It is at this precise moment where we will find ourselves in conflict with the world. This is why late Christmas decorations carry more truth than we know. The world is fine with Christmas as long as it stays in its bounds and doesn’t interfere with the status quo. Break out the tinsel all you want during the season but leaving it up in February is a swift ticket to a Jeff Foxworthy joke. Dabbling in divinity and studying the prophecies of a strange foreign people could lead to power and respect as a magi in a culture that celebrated such practices. But show up to actually pay homage to the King you’ve been reading about and innocents will be slaughtered in order to protect those in power while you take a different way home to avoid the same fate. Saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” will earn you the praise of culture warriors, politicians, and even the president-elect, but live it out the rest of the year and they’ll call you all manner of ugly things. But no matter, for the work of Christmas begins today.