Once upon a time there were some learned astronomers sitting at their respective stations, minding their own business, and gazing up at the sky. Suddenly, they caught sight of one of the largest, brightest, most glorious stars they had ever seen. They were not particularly religious, but they were familiar with the Hebrew prophecies about the promise of a Messiah. They became so captivated by this dazzling luminary that they knew immediately that something powerful was calling them to begin an adventure. Little did they know that it would dramatically change their lives.
They each packed provisions, left their homes, and mounted their camels for the long, long journey. And, not knowing who or what might be at the end of it, each selected a gift of great value just in case it might come in handy for they knew the importance of hospitality in the Middle East.
Their pilgrimage would lead them, by way of that bright star, to Jerusalem—the location they believed the Messianic prophecies identified—where they would make a pit stop at the palace of King Herod to water up the camels and inquire about this newborn king of the Jews, unaware that Herod was so insecure and so full of jealousy and greed, that he would plot to kill the baby, pretending that he, too, wanted to pay homage, and eventually slaughter thousands of newborns in the hope that he would annihilate what he perceived as a threat to his throne.
By hitting the fast-forward button on our remote, and listening to Matthew’s account, we learn that these oriental visitors did, indeed, find the child Jesus and his parents, presented him with the precious gifts they had brought with them, and, warned in a dream of Herod’s evil intentions, went home by another way.
What is intriguing about these twelve verses in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel are the particulars we assume to be true yet are not mentioned at all in the text. You’ll notice that in my reframing the story I avoided any reference to gender. We typically think of the “Three Wise Men,” yet Matthew never put a number into the story. There may have been many more of them. It was the poet Longfellow—not the Scripture—who gave them names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.
Actually, scholars tell us that they were 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 the Hebrew religion, dealt in alchemy and magic, and may well have been agnostic—or just 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, God’s radical invitation and grace extended to the outsider and the non-believer.
The Isaiah passage we read today is a very, old prophecy, dating back 580 years before the birth of Jesus. Matthew probably took his story of strange travelers coming from the Orient to Jerusalem to see where the star would lead them from this passage. 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 homicidal panic for King Herod.
Though Matthew does not say much about him, we know that he was a ruthless ruler appointed King of the Jews by the Romans. Herod murdered most of his good friends, his wife, and three of his sons. He was hugely paranoid and was threatened by everything—especially any hint that another would take his crown.
So why would they stop at Herod’s palace? Probably why we sometimes stop at a gas station: they were lost. The scholars in residence told them that they should not be looking in Jerusalem but rather in the City of David—Bethlehem. This gives Herod the chance to create an evil scheme: “I think you have miscalculated your destination point,” he tells them. Why don’t you go over to that little known excuse of a town Bethlehem and see if you find the new king. Then, please, please do come back and tell me so that I may lavish him with gifts as well.”
These smart travelers, well-informed as they were about the stars, nearly missed their quest to find the Messiah by nine miles—the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. That may not seem all that far to us, but it sure was a big deal for people bouncing on the back of a camel on dirt roads in the dark, back hills of first century Palestine.
This is a lovely story and, like so many in Scripture, has been romanticized and become the subject of some of the most beautiful masterpieces of art. Yet, this not some sweet fairy tale, so how can this story come to life in us, where can we find meaning in it for us, how can it inform our life?
As we begin this new year, we might start by reflecting on the missteps of the Magi. They almost missed meeting their goal. What goals have we set for ourselves I this New Year? How far off our course do we think we may wander?
Have we sometimes miscalculated the places where God shows up in our lives? Has something or someone discouraged us from looking? What hidden, precious gifts might we discover within ourselves that will bring joy to others and to us?
Who are the “Herods” on our life journey who seek to discourage or manipulate us? Will we, in spite of their pessimism, trudge on with hope and anticipation and keep searching for the light to break through our darkness?
Maybe, just maybe our old maps don’t work for us anymore and we need to follow a different star and take a new way home. These are deep, introspective questions on the day we celebrate the profound mystery of “Epiphany”—God’s revelation to all the world that in Jesus we can find the way, the truth and the life. And so, our journey continues.
May we travel the road with awareness of God’s openness to the far-flung and unlikely. Who knows where that may lead us?