If you were paying attention over the past couple of weeks, you might have noticed that there were no “wise men” at our stable on Christmas. They didn’t get there until this morning. They started out nestled in some holly on one of the back windowsills, and by last Sunday they’d moved forward a little, but only as far as one of these windowsills here.
Because it’s a long way to Bethlehem, you know. They were on the road for a long time. It took a while to get there. But today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. It’s a word that means a sudden manifestation, or a flash of understanding. And our wise men have finally taken their place with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds all gathered around the manger.
Which of course is completely wrong.
The wise men weren’t there at the manger in the Gospels. They never met the shepherds. The traditional crèche scene like ours is based on the Nativity story as Luke told it, although the stable looks more like something you’d find in Europe than in Bethlehem.
But Luke never mentions the magi—only Matthew tells a story in which they arrive in Bethlehem after Jesus was born, perhaps long after Jesus is born, and the find him with Mary in a house, not a stable.
So what you see on proud display here is basically a Biblical inaccuracy. I guess the best thing we can say about that is, at least we’re not the only ones.
But as a matter of fact, most of what we’ve heard about these three visitor from the East has no basis at all in the Bible. Most of it is a story that’s been embroidered out of traditions which developed long after the Gospels were written.
The idea that they were kings, or that one of them was black, or that their names were Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar—that is basically stuff that was made up later.
So we really know pracitally nothing about them. All Matthew says is that after Jesus was born, these “magi” came to Jerusalem, looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews.”And he does call them magi. He doesn’t call them wise men, as we have it in our own translation. He doesn’t call them kings.
Magi is the word for the priests of Zoroastrianism, which was the religion of Persia. It actually still exists in some parts of the world. They would have been expert astronomers who were finding meaning in their observations of the skies.
When they saw a great new star “at its rising,” they took it as a sign of an important birth. It was enough to set them off on their journey to Jerusalem, but they had to stop there to figure out where to go next.
And Matthew says they frightened all of Jerusalem with their questions. Because it just so happened that “king of the Jews” was Herod’s own title, and it turns out that he wasn’t exactly thrilled to think he might have a rival, even a young one.
So Herod puts the question now to his own priests, his own religious leaders, who are people who study the prophets instead of the skies, and they tell him that Bethlehem is where the Messiah is supposed to be born. And the Messiah was expected then to be an earthly king. So Herod sends the magi off to Bethlehem with instructions to come back and let him know where they find this king, so he can go and worship, also.
Uh-huh. Well, we know better than that, and so—eventually—do the magi.
So when they set off for Bethlehem, all of a sudden they can see their star again, moving ahead of them, and they’re “overwhelmed with joy”when it finally stops over the house where they find Mary and the child. They do kneel and pay homage, and leave their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in that dream not to go back to Herod, they return to their homes by another way.
That’s the entire story as Matthew tells it, and that’s all we really know about them.
We don’t know where they came from. It could have been Arabia, or Persia, or Babylon. We don’t know how long it took them to get there.
We don’t even know for sure that were three of them. Matthew doesn’t say how many there were. He mentions three gifts, and that’s why we think of three, but who knows. So much of what we’ve heard is based on legends that developed over many centuries as people pondered the meaning of this strange story.
And I’ve done some pondering myself, but it turns out that the things that really interest me are not the ones other people seems to care about.
I want to know, first of all, about the deep desire of the heart that inspired them to make this trip. They could have just looked at the star and said, hmmm, and gone home to bed. What were they really looking for? What did they hope to find? Because I think that every human heart carries the seed of a desire for something bigger than ourselves. You could call it a desire for holy mystery. For God, in other words.
It’s a desire for wholeness. We want to be lifted and healed from the brokenness that weighs us down. We dream of living in a better world, in a world where goodness prevails.
And sometimes we can feel ourselves wanting something more, but we don’t understand what it is that we actually need. So we substitute all kinds of other things for the grace we really seek. Consciously or unconsciously, we think these other things will feed out souls, will feed this desire for what we can’t quite name.
And so we buy things we don’t really need, we fall in love with the wrong people, we struggle with addictions that are deadly, not life-giving.
And the funny thing is that sometimes we actually do catch glimpses of glory in the truly good things of this life—in the beauty of Creation and its pleasures. In the beauty of loving human hearts. But these aren’t our final destination. They’re more like a star that’s there to point us in the right direction.
And the good thing for us is that it’s not a far-away star. You don’t have to rent a camel for this trip.
Our epiphanies come day by day. We can find Christ in the very ordinariness of our own lives. Because this is exactly where God has chosen to meet us, in our own lives.
“Quotidian grace” is what it’s sometimes called. It’s the grace of finding God’s presence in daily life. It’s there, but you have to be looking for it. You have to keep your eyes open to beauty and goodness that’s all around you. You have to learn to see the patterns, like learning to look up at the sky and see the constellations instead of just randomness. It’s like learning to look up at the sky and notice a bright new star where there wasn’t one before.
You have to be ready to find grace in unexpected places—to look at a little child as those visitors from the East did, for example, and realize you’re in the presence of God.
So that’s the first thing I think about when I ponder this story: What was the desire that set them out on their journey. And the second thing I wish I could know is, what difference did it make to them? How were they changed by their encounter with the divine child in Bethlehem?
Because that’s the ultimate goal of our own journey toward God—It has to change us in some way, or we might as well have stayed home.
What were the magi looking for when they set out on their journey, and how were they changed when they got back?
We’ll never know the answers to those question, of course. But I think we need to be asking ourselves those same two questions, because they point to the ultimate purpose of our own lives.
That yearning in us for something bigger and better is a sign that we’re spiritually alive. Our desire for God is stirred by God’s desire for us. So be aware of it, and nurture it, and keep looking for all the little epiphanies that come into your own life.
Be sure to travel with others, because on this long journey we call life, you need companions to overcome the temptations of loneliness, to keep you strong, and to make sure you keep going in the right direction.
And be prepared for change. Expect to be transformed by your own encounter with the divine presence—in the Gospel, in the Eucharist, and in all these brothers and sisters who have gathered here with us this morning for the same purpose.
We should leave here as people who can go out and see God everywhere, not just in the beauty of this world but also in its pain, in the suffering of others who may be different from ourselves but are likewise created in the image and likeness of God.
Because we believe in a God who welcomed dirty agricultural workers and foreigners who practiced another religion as the very first who came to worship, while the king and his advisors were busy with their own affairs—in the king’s case, mostly how to hold onto his power.
And maybe there’s a lesson there for us.
Matthew 2:2 NRSV.