First Sunday After Epiphany
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 newborn 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. We don’t really know if they were all men, though I expect if any women were part of the group they would have stopped much sooner to ask for directions. Sorry, guys but you know how we are!
We do know they were highly intelligent, that they studied the stars and were also familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. For an event 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 pre-dates the feast of Christmas and was 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.”
These oriental visitors belonged to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, which paid particular attention to the stars. These Wise Ones 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 knowledge, God used scientists who practiced other religions to let King Herod and the chief priests and scribes of the people to give the news that the 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 the Son of God.
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, age, gender, race, social status or sexual orientation. Because there is really only one tribe, God’s beloved, and that’s all of us—without exception.
At the heart of all of the Christmas stories is the dream. A dream quells Joseph’s concern about young Mary’s pregnancy; dreams warn important characters how to go forward in safety and security. God’s faithfulness is revealed to Joseph and to the Magi, as their trust in God’s faithfulness is revealed to us.
There is a wonderful Hasidic story that reveals the “faith treasure” that lies within each of us—if only we would recognize it. Isaac, a poor Jew, lived in an old hovel far from the big city. One night he dreamed that if made the journey there, he would find a bag of gold under the bridge leading to the city’s main gate. He was so poor he not nothing to lose—so he started out on what one might consider a foolhardy trip.
After several days of walking, he arrived, sore and exhausted. But to his dismay, he found that the bridge was heavily guarded. Terribly disheartened, Isaac stood under the bridge, hoping for a chance to look for the treasure and his presence soon got the attention of the captain of the guard who yelled, “What are you doing here, old man?”
A simple, trusting man, Isaac told the captain his story about the dream. Hardly able to contain his laughter, “the officer replied, “You old fool, where would we be if we took notice of our dreams? Last night, I dreamed that if I went on a journey to a small village miles from here, I would find a great treasure hidden behind the fireplace in the miserable hovel of an old man named Isaac. Be off with you. Take your foolishness elsewhere!” And, of course, Isaac went home as fast as he could and found the treasure he had dreamed about behind his own hearth.
The magi’s journey led them to a revelation, to find the treasure who was at the end of a quest they had been on all their lives. Sometimes the treasures about which we dream are right in our own backyard—in familiar places like our home, the people we love, our church, our individual ministry in the world.
We just need to look a little harder and be radically open to where the Spirit of God is directing our attention. Where would we be if we paid attention to our dreams? Maybe, like old Isaac, we’d be surprised where they lead us and what we discover at the end of our search.