The Three Dimensions of the Magi’s Visit – January 8, 2016
In the Name of God, who made and knows us, the Savior who redeems and befriends us, and the Spirit who enlightens and sustains us. Amen.
I’m sure you have heard or used the expression “there are two sides to every story.” The Gospel passage we just heard is one side of the Christmas story, one that has been immortalized by authors, artists, and musicians. Poets like Yeats and Williams have even put the visit of the wise men to verse.
There are literally hundreds of art masterpieces that depict the scene described in today’s Gospel, often under the title “the Adoration of the Magi,” Botticelli and Fra Angelico among them. Unlike Luke’s version with shepherds, barn animals and angels in which everything was sweet and serene, and which suggests the need for tinsel, egg nog, sleigh rides and Christmas cookies, the story we hear today is disturbing and even violent. It is a very different kind of Christmas story and has all the ingredients of a thriller: the mysterious star, an ancient prophecy, heroes, a villain, and an intriguing plot.
Perhaps what is most interesting and even captivating about these twelve verses in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is what it doesn’t tell us. We typically think there were “Three Wise Men,” yet Matthew never cites a number and there may have been two, four, or a hundred of them.
Actually, these exotic travelers were not kings or wise men but magi—that is magicians- and were not only involved with watching stars but in making astrological predictions, reading omens, maybe even telling fortunes. Some think the gifts they brought were things they used in their incantations. They were well read and well-bred but they were not Jews, had no affiliation with religion, dealt in alchemy and magic, and may well have been agnostic or very curious pagans. Here in the earliest chapters of Matthew’s Gospel we have a profound example of God’s openness to the far-flung and unlikely, a radical invitation to the outsider to find and be found by God.
Matthew likely borrowed his idea that exotic characters, seeing the birth of a Messiah as a grand event, would journey all the way from the Orient to Jerusalem from the Isaiah passage we heard today. It is a very old prophecy, dating back 580 years before the birth of Jesus. But the prospect that such a new born king was to be discovered in Jerusalem—a source of great excitement and joy for the magi—was at the same time the source of bloodthirsty panic for the hyper paranoid King Herod, a callous ruler appointed King of the Jews by the Romans.
Here was a classic narcissist. Herod murdered his wife, most of his good friends, and three of his sons. People of the time said that the pigs in his sty had a better chance of survival than his family. So you can imagine his reaction when these odd foreigners appeared at his doorstep asking about a child born king of the Jews and sporting such luxurious gifts for him.
Herod instantly summoned his scholars, ordering them to tell him everything they knew about Isaiah, chapter 60—about these camels and the gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they reported something most unexpected: the answer was not to be found in the Book of Isaiah, but rather in the fifth chapter of Micah. “Your majesty,” they explained, “the Isaiah text says that Jerusalem will be powerful and prosperous, but you know well that we are but a shabby city under the subjugation of Rome. Jerusalem can’t be the right location.”
Not being much versed in the Bible, Herod pressed them for details. So they gave him the lowdown on Micah’s prophecy: “But you, oh Bethlehem, who is one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule Israel…” Hence, “O Little town of Bethlehem.”
Herod returns to the magi with a scheme: “I think you have miscalculated your destination point. Why don’t you fellows go over to that little known excuse of a town and see if you find the new king. Then do come back and tell me so that I may lavish him with gifts as well.”
So they headed for the tiny village that the Prophet Micah said would one day have an importance well beyond its size where they found the child, paid him homage, left their gifts, took a nap before they began the long journey home and, in their dreams, were warned to return by another way. And finally came the violence and the slaughter of innocent baby boys by the evil Herod in his effort to destroy what he perceived as a threat to his throne.
I think the revelation – or Epiphany of this story is three dimensional, not unlike the gifts the magi brought for the Christ child. First, that God’s coming to live among us is for all people, without restriction and God’s all-embracing love is extended to the outsider and most unlikely of folk. The interracial, trans-cultural, and broad welcome we find in the story is a glimpse of God’s intended kingdom.
The second dimension is found in the person of Herod. He is an angry, jealous, self-absorbed individual. Here is a man who prefers to live in the darkness, to curse it, and to bring suffering to others. Do we recognize the profile of Herod in the world when we encounter it—those who pursue gratification from self-admiration ,who lack any understanding or care of other’s feelings, who are consumed with power, and who will do whatever it takes to climb the ladder of success at the expense of others, especially the most vulnerable? Are we able to distance ourselves from this toxic behavior, to travel by another road like the Magi did?
The third and final dimension is the challenge for us to seek the light in the darkness wherever we can find it. The journey of faith is often surrounded by doubt, sadness and discouragement, and we have all experienced the very dead of winter in our journey.
But it is a life in which God asks us to live in trust that the light will outshine the darkness and it is a life driven by hope that God will provide a star to lead us when we falter, are weary, lose faith and just want to give up. God may even send us a few wise women and wise men to make the journey with us.
As we await the unfolding of this new year of 2017, may the light that was born in Bethlehem continue to burn in our hearts and in his name may we use the many and unique gifts God has given us to be that guiding star for one another.