Where Is the Child?

Looking for God's light at Epiphany

Written By Robert Hansel

Matthew 2:1-12

Gold starIn today's Gospel reading from St. Matthew we hear King Herod asking a question that has doubtlessly been asked a countless number of times down through the centuries, ever since the birth of Jesus: Where is the Child? 

Now, Herod's inquiry has a very negative agenda behind it. He is so threatened by the idea of a rival for his throne that he wants to identify and destroy the baby. Others have asked so they might know and serve Jesus. Still others probably have voiced the question as a sneering criticism of the seeming lack of God's presence in a troubled world. You yourself may well be a person who has asked yourself this question, wondering about what has happened to all the promises of peace, justice, mercy, and love that were supposed to surround the arrival of the Messiah. Things don't
seem to have changed very much, so, Where is the child?

As a way of responding to that perfectly legitimate question, I would like you, in your mind's eye, to join me in a journey this morning—a journey back into time. Where we're going together is a time in mid-December of the year 1940. We find ourselves in a bitterly cold, barren landscape in rural France. The setting is a desperately cruel and forbidding one: a concentration camp created by German storm troopers that's designed to imprison as many French intellectuals, artists, politicians, and religious leaders as possible. The camp is part of a scheme aimed at establishing absolute control of the people by removing contact with anyone who might offer any guidance in resisting Nazi domination.

Our eyes cannot comprehend the ugliness and brutality that surround the scene: barbed wire, vicious dogs, searchlights, uniformed guards in turrets bristling with machine guns. Hundreds of prisoners are shivering in the cold, and they're only partially clothed against the blasts of frigid wind. They have nothing at all to protect them against even the basic elements. There's no hope,no future, no reason left to survive. Surely they must have thought as they approached Christmas 1940, Where is the Child?

Still, life is incredibly resilient and, not surprisingly that December, some of the priests and ministers came to the camp commandant to ask if those prisoners might at least have a Christmas worship service. Their request was not only refused but they were ridiculed for even having such an idea. Didn't they think he knew that religion was filled with notions of freedom and hope that were politically subversive? As a last-ditch effort to bring some token of sanity and reassurance to their fellow prisoners, the clerics begged for just a simple Nativity play. The Nazi commandant reluctantly agreed, figuring that there couldn't be much harm in a children's pageant.

Now in that prison was one of the greatest thinkers, writers, and philosophers in modern French history, the agnostic/atheist/existentialist Jean Paul Sartre. It was to this totally unlikely author the clerics went in an effort to turn that simple Nativity play into something powerful that would sustain the minds and hearts of every one of those hundreds of suffering and discouraged French prisoners—not just the Christians or even the religious of whatever background, but everyone. Sartre took some persuasion, but eventually agreed to create the text for a Nativity play which he titled Bariona.

The play is a fascinating exploration of the message of Incarnation, God's appearance on the plain of human history. In short, it's about the question, Where is the child? That play was performed only once because its author was convinced that it was too effective—too powerful a vehicle for communicating the message of a belief that he himself was never able to embrace. Permission has never been given by Jean Paul Sartre or his heirs for Bariona to be seen outside that one miraculous occasion in a prison camp.

Let me tell you just a bit about Bariona and then share with you a central piece of dialogue that may help you understand why its message is so dramatic in its impact.

Sartre's Nativity play is set in first century Palestine. It is a country firmly occupied by the great military force of that day, the Roman Empire. The people are ground down by an overwhelming tax burden—a tribute they have to pay or be arrested and crucified by the authorities. They are a people imprisoned, without hope. Bariona is the mayor of a tiny little town with a handful of people. 

As the play opens, we find Bariona receiving a very unwanted visitor, the unfeeling Roman tax collector. He is told that despite all the suffering and hardship, next year's taxes will be even higher. Bariona is at his emotional end and, in anger and frustration, makes his desperate appeal. There's no way the people can pay anything more. They have nothing, and their children are imprisoned by debt for generations to come. Too bad, says the tax collector, pay or die. Bariona calls the people together and tells them of a final, desperate response: They must decide not to have any more children. The only way to throw off the crushing weight of Roman tyranny is by their own death. If there is no one left in the village, the Romans can't demand their annual tribute. 

After much arguing and controversy, everyone accepts this strange, grim sort of strategy to fight back. Just as it all seems settled, over the dunes come riding these three old geezers on camels. They're all excited about going to the place where the Messiah is going to be born, the one who will deliver the people and set them free. Oh no! thinks Bariona. Yet another ridiculous and vain illusion that people will fall for and keep on being enslaved by the Romans. Soon some shepherds come, and then even the handful of people from his own village leave Bariona and set out for Bethlehem. Bariona is totally depressed and defeated. Just when he thought he had a way to thwart the Romans along comes this silly notion of a Savior. There's only one solution, he decides. He'll set out on a shortcut, get there ahead of the others and kill this baby who they think is their new King.

And so it is that we see Bariona at the back of the stable—an unlikely assassin, who for compassion and mercy's sake is contemplating murder. But before he can act, he once again meets one the of Wise men, old Balthazar, who recognizes him, knows why he is there, and talks to him about why he must let this child live. Listen in as Balthazar helps Bariona see things in a totally new way:

You are light, Bariona. Oh, if only you knew how light man is! And if you accept your portion of suffering as you accept your daily bread, then you are beyond it....

Throw yourself heavenwards and then you will be free. Oh creature of over-abundance among all the other creatures of over-abundance, free and out of breath, astonished to be living right in the heart of God, in the Kingdom of God, who is in Heaven and also on Earth.

BARIONA: Is that what Christ has come to tell us?

BALTHAZAR: He also has a message for you.

BARIONA: For me?

BALTHAZAR: For you. He has come to say to you: let your child be born. He will suffer, it is true. But that is not your concern. Do not pity his suffering, you have no right to. That is his business alone and he will deal with it as he wishes, for he will be free... free to rejoice forever in his existence....Christ is born for all the children of the world, Bariona, and each time that a child is going to be born, Christ will be born in him and through him, for ever to be jeered at through all his misfortunes and to escape in him and by him all sorrows forever. He has come to say to the blind, to the unemployed, to the maimed and to the prisoners of war: you should not hold back from having children. For even for the blind and for the out-of-work and for the maimed, there is joy.

Where is the Child? There he is, a tiny infant wrapped in rough swaddling cloth, lying on a bed of straw, placed in a feeding trough for animals. Like Bariona we, too, stare in amazement and surprise. We are shocked at the power of that visual statement: God has completely, utterly, fully committed to uscome among us in all the vulnerability of human existence. God has chosen to be translated into the language of a helpless child in order to begin the very same life-journey that all of us must walk. As the person Jesus, He will experience all the heights and depths of living in order to know first-hand exactly what and who we are. He will share both the best and the worst situations in which we can find ourselves. 

In that baby, God breaks down every barrier, all distance, all time, any separation between ourselves and the One who is our Creator and our goal. God is establishing a whole new relationship with us—one that's so very intense, personal, and life-giving that no one from this point on can fail to understand. No one who seriously asks can doubt that the ultimate question, "Where is the child?" has been answered forever.

You see, so often we are really looking in the wrong place or seeking the wrong kind of evidence for believing. We want so much for the promises of peace, love, and justice to be fulfilled and we can't understand why, if the Prince of Peace has already come, those problems haven't disappeared. Well, the fact is that Jesus didn't come to erase all the problems and cure all our ills. He came to be with us right in the midst of it all. Immanuel—God with us.

Because of the commitment of God to us at Christmas we can say to Christ, "I'm lonely. Death has taken all my loved ones. I feel all alone in the world. Do you know what I'm saying?" "Yes," comes the response from one born in a barn in Bethlehem. "I, too, have known loneliness beyond your imagination, especially one night in a garden of Gethsemane. Come to me. Lay your burden on me and I will give you strength."

We can say, "Lord, I am despised and rejected by others. I feel unvalued, misunderstood. Do you know what I'm saying?" "Yes," is the answer. "I, too, have experienced every rejection and betrayal possible. I know how you feel because I went through the fear and pain of a cross on Calvary. Come and we will mend our grief together."

Maybe our plea is, "Lord, I'm unable to get along with others. I've made a total mess of things. No one can ever forgive me—not even my family. Do you hear what I'm saying?" "Yes," comes the response, "But I know also the redeeming power of love because, even in death, I have never been lost to the love of the Father. Come to me, find forgiveness, and you will receive eternal life within the communion of Saints."

So, that's it. Eye-opening messages this Epiphany day, messages saying to us that in that Nativity barn God was reaching out to everyone of us with words of profound, eternal, unconditional love. It can all be boiled down to this:

FIRST: God is with us, right here in the middle of all the problems and suffering.

SECOND: We are called to be God's partners in the ongoing work of reclaiming a broken world.

THIRD: God knows first-hand just exactly how hard life is and, no matter what's happened to us in the past or is yet to come, God continues to love us passionately, profoundly, absolutely.

Where is the child? It's appropriate that we take the time to ask that question, if only in our mind, to revisit that Epiphany stable—not just once a year, but weekly (yes, even daily) to remind ourselves of just what happened there once-and-for-all. God came into this world in-person and, from a barn in Bethlehem, brought the blessed message of eternal life that is forever after
able to save and redeem all people everywhere.

Where is the child? The child is right here, out there on the street, and securely within the heart of each one of us. Thanks be to God!

Copyright 2002 Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee.