The Nightmare Before Epiphany

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The Nightmare Before Christmas: Guided by the bright moon instead of a bright star, Jack begins his quest to find himself.

Matthew 2:1-12

Several of you know from conversations with me that I have one singular favorite movie: one about whom the debate rages on — “Is it a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie?” A question to which I enthusiastically respond: YES.

That movie, naturally, is The Nightmare Before Christmas.

In the intro, we are told where holidays come from — we are taken to a forest where there are portals to worlds where each holiday is happening all the time.

(I’ve always been distracted by the St. Patrick’s Day door, which does not figure at all into the plot of the movie, but I’m both drawn to it by the promise of Irish beer and repulsed by it for the thought of green beer. Anyway. I digress. )

So there is a world for each holiday. In Halloweentown, a character named Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, rules his kingdom. He is the scariest ghoul, the best ghoul. He is, as you might imagine, a skeleton, and an insightful one at that. The very beginning of the movie leads us into Jack’s existential crisis: though he rules over his kingdom of Halloween, he longs for something more.

And so Jack sets out on a journey — first silhouetted by the bright moon — he gets lost and finds himself in Christmastown, where he is fascinated by the bright lights and the snow and the elves and, finally, Santa Claus.

Jack Skellington wants everything this world has to offer. He is transformed by this experience that is unlike anything he’s ever experienced before.

At first, he takes this transformation back to Halloweentown and attempts to make Halloweentown into another Christmastown. This goes as badly as you’d predict. Jack quickly learns that the Halloween creatures are terrible at Christmas —  children do not want to be greeted at Christmas with a skeleton in a Santa costume, and that children who find actual disembodied feet in their stockings are understandably upset.

While Jack and the other residents of Halloweentown are terrible at, as he puts it, “making Christmas,” the experience, in the end, does transform him. The exercise of his journey to another land and another identity changes his life and motivates him to be exactly who he was created to be — the Pumpkin King, the greatest ghoul of them all, the famous king of Halloweentown.

And that is my favorite Christmas movie.

Here at the end of Christmastide, just for fun, I named my Epiphany sermon The Nightmare Before Epiphany. Today is where we remember the wise men, or magi, who visited the baby Jesus in a house after he was born. Mary and Joseph welcome the magi, who bring their gifts, and so today we remember them by bless chalk to bless the door frames of our homes, hoping that we will offer hospitality and love to all who come through our doors.

The wise men find their way to the home of Mary and Joseph, famously, with the light of a star. As the light gets increasingly brighter outside day by day, the Church calls us to celebrate Epiphany, this season of light. And it starts here, with the wise men who, like Jack Skellington, went on something of a journey to find meaning.

We don’t know who they were. We don’t know how many there were. (I know, we say three, there are three in your creche — but Matthew, the only Gospel writer to tell this story, doesn’t give us a number.) Truth be told, we’re not entirely sure what gender the magi were. All we get from Matthew is magoi, or magi, which some folks translate “wise men,” because it was more expected for men to be seekers at the time and we all got assumptions, but the word most directly translates to “magician.”

What we do know is that they came from the East on a search for meaning, specifically, for “the child who has been born king of the Jews.”

Much like Jack, the magi were transformed, by hospitality, by welcome, and by the Christ child himself. However, though their search was religious in nature, they didn’t become Jews, at least not that Matthew tells us. Because the point of this story isn’t that Jesus made everyone the same — it’s that Jesus transforms all kinds of people from all kinds of places. That in Christ, people find what they’re seeking. And that God makes a way for everyone to find what they need.

When we find what we need, we’re secure. We’re not anxious. We become our best selves. We are free to love others in a way that is healthy, not clingy or needy or harsh, but calm, patient, and reassuring.

The point that Jack Skellington realizes that he’s far better off being himself is when he fully understands and meets the real Santa Claus. In the same way, we’re terrible saviors — we can’t save ourselves. But when we meet the real one, we give up trying to save ourselves and we begin to discover who were were created to be.

Catholic theologian James Allison describes being in the presence of God to being in the presence of someone you’re certain adores you. You’re relaxed, you’re more funny, you’re more yourself. You’re at peace, resting in the gaze of someone whose love you’re certain of. That kind of love transforms us.

That’s the kind of love we meet at the table every single Sunday: of a God who shows up for us and transforms us. A God we can be certain adores each of us. None of us is perfect, none of us is capable of rendering ourselves lovable — but here, all are welcome, and all are loved, not because we’ve saved ourselves and finally gotten it right, but because God saves all of us. Like Jack Skellington, we go on a quest trying to be something perfect, and through our transformative journey, we become more ourselves. 

It’s because we’ve been so welcome, so loved, and so transformed, that we’re blessed to bless others with the same kind of love, the same kind of welcome. To be bright stars pointing towards something transformative.

And so today we bless chalk and we put what looks like a ridiculous algebra equation over our doors in hopes that we’ll become what we seek — a place of love, of hospitality, of welcome. A place where everyone can be themselves. Where everyone can rest comfortably.

And, like the home of Joseph and Mary, where all can find God. Amen.

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