One of the favorite images of Christmas is that of the Magi travelling by camel through a star lit night. One brilliant star dominates the sky as they arrive on the crest of the hill overlooking Bethlehem. There are literally hundreds of art masterpieces that depict the scene described in today’s Gospel.
The journey is almost over. It’s been a long trip from a country far away in the east. There have been dangers along the way and now they are at the town of Jesus’ birth. There is just a few hundred meters to go. They look down from the star in the sky to the building lying below its light. This is where they will find the new born king about whom they had read in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The truth is, however, that the Magi never made it to the manger and don’t really belong in the manger scene. Most likely they arrived quite some time after Jesus’ birth in a stable. Jesus may have been a toddler by this time since Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys under the age of two. The surprise is that for centuries so much has been made of a story about which we have so little information and even less detail.
We refer to these post-Christmas visitors at the Manger as the “Magi” or “Three Kings” or the “Wise Men,” yet Matthew never speaks of them as royalty nor specifies how many there were nor does he tell us exactly from where in the East they came. We don’t know how long it took them to get to Bethlehem, how many there were, or what their names were. The poet Longfellow—not Matthew— gave them names in his work, “The Three Kings.” And we don’t know if they were all males. We do know they were highly intelligent, that they studied the stars and were also familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. For an event that comes with so little back story and that appears only in Matthew’s Gospel, it is somewhat intriguing that this is one of the most ancient feasts, tracing its origin to third century Egypt. It actually pre-dates the feast of Christmas and was, in fact, originally a dual celebration of the birth of Jesus and his manifestation to the world as Son of God. It is sometimes referred to as “Little Christmas.”
A more precise description of these oriental visitors is that they belonged to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, which paid particular attention to the stars. This priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. So these Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced other religions. They may have also dabbled in magic and could have been somewhat agnostic. They were not mainstream believers.
The wonder of this story I think lies not in the sentimentality of their journey or the legends that surround it or the meaning of the gifts they bring but rather in the fact that God used their conviction and knowledge to bring them to the Christ. More ironic, God used scientists who practiced other religions to let King Herod and the chief priests and scribes of the people in on the news that their Messiah had been born. God reaches beyond shepherds at the bottom of the barrel to Wise Ones at the top. God reaches beyond people scared witless by God’s glory to those who observe the glorious star at its rising, and systematically, persistently, and earnestly follow it to a king.
God does whatever it takes to ensure that all people — all people– receive the good news of Christ’s birth because God embraces all people, no matter who they are or where they may be on their faith journey. God shines divine light with abundant generosity and never asks to see our passport or our family genealogy or questions our culture, class, gender, race or sexual orientation.
This ancient and well-loved story of the Magi can be parsed in many ways. It has a message for us about gift-giving and kindness, it speaks to the call to face difficult challenges and take risks, it reminds us of the importance of worship, and sheds light on the significance of our dreams. I’ve probably preached on all these themes.
Today I want to raise up the deep meaning and implication this Gospel has for the church, the Episcopal Church and the Church Universal. God’s radical grace is wondrously frightening as is God’s call to the church to be radically welcoming. The litmus test for our faithfulness to that call is I believe in our commitment to an open Communion Table where no one is ever excluded from the sacred and sacramental meal God gives us here.
Typically, we cite the fact that Jesus ate with outcasts and sinners, touched people who were sick and shunned by society, and advocated for the marginalized as evidence that all should be welcomed to the Eucharistic Table. I think that is still a good argument and yet I see the roots of the doctrine of radical welcome in this very Epiphany Gospel and the deep meaning it holds for the church.
Understanding that the Magi were scientists who practiced another religion pushes us to expand our understanding of both the ways God reaches out to people to announce good news in and through Christ and what it means to be church. The Magi did not come looking for the Christ through preaching, liturgy, great music, a welcoming congregation, or a vibrant social ministry—all things that are hugely important and which we cherish. They came seeking the Christ after studying the night skies. We as the church are wont to clench firmly to traditional ways through which God works to proclaim the gospel and bring people to faith which is why it’s always amazingly startling to recognize that God’s own work of embracing all people is more “mystery” than “formula,” because God’s ways are always bigger than our human understanding.
And, sadly, one of those traditions in too many churches is to restrict the gifts of God to those whom that particular denomination or local church deems acceptable. As unbaptized, quirky strangers, the magi would have never made it to the “A” list. They would be turned away from the communion rail. The Church like Herod can slaughter peoples’ experiences of God’s grace for the sake of its tradition, practices, perspectives, and, yes, even its paranoia.
I hope that you are as proud as I am of this community that has embraced the belief that God’s gifs in all forms—especially the Body and Blood of Christ given for us—are for all people; that this church invites everyone to be nourished by these gifts and to meet God in that mysterious, holy place where God meets us.
The light that guided the Magi and which they beheld over the place where they would find the Christ was not just a star. It was divine light. It is divine light that God intends for every church, every faith community as they open their door to all and are places of welcome, refuge, safety, and become mouthpieces for justice and peace.
And so here we are, beginning a new year together as God’s people who have received the light and are called to illuminate the darkness in the lives of those who enter our doors—whether they travel afar or live around the corner, whether they come with great faith or serious doubt, whether they were here last week or never before, whether they are baptized or not, whether they come with a smile or in tears—all of us gathered around a table where there is plenty of hi=oly food and room for everyone.
Because there is really only one tribe, God’s beloved, and that’s all of us—without exception.