In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
for a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
Sounds about right, doesn’t it? You may feel this is a rather appropriate description of the last two weeks since Christmas. Snow. Cold. Colder. Then finally, the Bomb Cyclone.
In fact, these bone chilling images are how the poet T.S. Eliot begins his poem about today’s Gospel reading – Matthew’s account of the Journey of the Magi. And this is a poem narrated by one of the wise men at the end of his life as reflects on the journey from the east heading west, following the star, so they might find the baby Jesus and pay homage with gifts.
It’s a poem I have often read at the end of a Christmas Eve service, although it really belongs to Epiphany which we often think of as a day which marks the end of the Christmas. In fact, in many Christian traditions, Epiphany is the larger celebration because it is the day the wise men show up with their presents for Jesus. The wise men, in a sense, stand in for the rest of humanity, even inviting us to follow them to the manager and have our first encounter with Jesus Christ, the true and only God.
At some point in Western tradition, Christmas eclipsed Epiphany. The nativity story in Luke is told again and again, and I think that’s because it is filled with beautiful details like angels singing. Mark and John have no nativity stories at all…Jesus appears on the scene as a full-grown man right from the start.
And Matthew’s version of the nativity? Well, it contains mostly boring genealogy at the beginning of chapter 1, a short birth narrative at the end of chapter 1, and then this story of foreigners coming to visit Jesus.
Matthew does not offer us many details about the foreigners. Much of what we think we know about this story is based in tradition, carols and cute Christmas pageants, not on actual Scripture. Legend has fleshed out the visitors by giving them names, homelands, and even experiences on their journey, both before and after their encounter with Jesus. The Eliot poem is just one part of a very large tradition which invites all of us to use our theological imaginations to follow the wise men, and get a sense of what it felt like to encounter God in flesh.
So we don’t know — and the Bible doesn’t tell us – exactly where these wise men came from. Nor does the Bible tell us there were three of them. We have surmised the number over time based upon the number of gifts they bring – gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But we do know the wise men set off on the journey because they saw a light, a star rising in the sky, something that captured their imagination so completely, so thoroughly, they could not not follow it west, even at the worst time of the year for such a journey. There was some sort of divine, irresistible revelation at work that moved these foreigners to hit the road.
The T.S. Eliot poem imagines the sights and smells and sounds of such a journey:
“And the camels galled, sore footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow…
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.”
These are common traveling complaints. The horror of holiday travel. Bad roads. Bad food. Terrible weather. Lousy hotels or no hotel at all when a flight gets cancelled or a snow storm moves in. Why did we ever think this was a good idea? Why did we leave home at all? Anyone who has spent any time traveling during the Christmas holidays have uttered those words. This is all folly.
And yet there it is. The star. That star that shone with such promise. Leading the wise men along, coaxing their steps forward, beckoning them to continue on a journey that at various points must have surely threatened to break them.
Finally, they arrive as strangers, foreigners in Jerusalem, and they try to figure out what’s next. The star that had led them so far seems to have vanished. They ask questions, wondering if they’re following the right path, wondering which way to head next.
Matthew’s gospel makes sure we know that King Herod, a puppet king installed by the Romans, soon hears that some strange men have been asking around about a star and a king.
Herod was no dummy. He recognizes a genuine threat to his power when he hears it. A king? Everyone knows that there can be only one king who is king of everyone, including the Jews. In a panic, Herod gathers together his priests and scribes to get a handle on what might be happening and where the Messiah is to be born. And the religious leaders confirm that what the foreigners are seeking is exactly what Herod most fears – a baby born in Bethlehem. The Messiah.
So Herod comes up with a secret plan. He sends the wise men on to Bethlehem, with very specific instructions to return to Jerusalem and tell him where the baby is so he too can go and worship.
We know it’s a lie. Maybe the wise men also knew it was a lie and Herod was using them as spies.
Regardless, the wise men strike out toward Bethlehem, the city where David was anointed by Samuel. The city where the Davidic line began. The city where prophecy says the Messiah will be born.
And the star appears again to lead them to the child.
As Eliott tells it in his poem, the closer they get to their destination, the more the wise men are baffled by a series of disparate sights whose meanings are still in the future: vine branches, empty wine-skins, pieces of silver, three trees on a hill, the pale horse of the Apocalypse. The scene when they arrive in the house where Jesus and his mother are living is described sparingly, as though words fail before such a mystery:
“And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.”
Matthew’s gospel tell us that when the travelers encounter Jesus, they fall to their knees and paid homage to a child, born to a poor woman in the middle of nowhere. God was revealed to them, these pagan travelers, and all they can do is rejoice.
Life changes in that moment for the foreigners, the ones who knew absolutely nothing about the importance of this journey. All they had was the pull and promise of a star that led them far from their kingdoms and into a kingdom they could not imagine, a new kingdom that was being born and just taking root.
We do not know how long the wise men stayed and what was said, but we know they went home by another way. That was their final gift to the Christ child, a gift which most likely put their lives in danger. They did not report back to Herod. They traveled on a different route as instructed by God in a dream.
Eliot closes his poem:
“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
And of course, that is flip side of the story of Jesus’ birth. Death. We know what Herod does after the wise men return to their country. It’s the part of the story we do not talk about in our Christmas pageants or celebrations.
Herod finds out that the foreigners tricked him and he flies into a rage and murders all the male children two years and younger who lived in Bethlehem and in its vicinity. Mary, Joseph and the baby flee to Egypt, that place of Israel’s ancient bondage which now provides sanctuary for its future.
So Matthew’s nativity story moves quickly from the joy of the wise men as they encounter Jesus Christ, to a darker world of fear and violence in the murder of the innocents. There’s a reason we read Luke’s version of the nativity on Christmas Eve, and not Matthew. But in a sense, Matthew’s account is more realistic. Because death shadows life all the time.
Because we live in a world still riddled by fear and violence. A world in which innocents still die each day due to gun violence or preventable illness and hunger. A world in which monster storms destroy power grids and powerful nations point nuclear weapons at one another, daring each other to blink first.
Yet, Matthew’s story promises that it is exactly this kind of world that God chose to come to. God came in flesh to frightened, feckless, sometimes just awful, awful people who do the worst to one another and to themselves. Just like we do.
Matthew reminds us that the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild. The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
Our Christmas songs of joy and peace, and our efforts at charity have not even come close to erasing the headlines of child poverty and gun violence in this world. Stanley Hauerwas writes in his commentary on Matthew that, “Perhaps no other event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants like Herod.”
The sorrow in the world must not prevent our joy but it tempers our joy. And it reminds us that this is the world — the real world — God so loved that he sent his own son. It reminds us that the young mother who cradled her babe in the stable also watched her son die on the cross. And that God himself watched his own Son die.
Like the wise men, we will sometimes encounter cities hostile and towns unfriendly. We will wonder if it’s all folly. We will even feel like we do not belong in our old kingdoms, among alien people who clutch their gods of safety, success, and comfort.
Christians remember the story does not end on Christmas, but it does not end with the story of the massacre of the innocents either. In the end, neither Herod, or Pilate, or the most powerful evil the world could muster is able to stop God’s plan. Nor are we helpless before the powers of this world, although some days it sure feels that way. But you and I have been given the power of the Holy Spirit to wade into the muck, to follow the star, to seek out what Jesus is up to and participate in that work, even at the risk of losing our lives.
When we come to the table this day, we encounter the living Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are welcomed with open arms despite all we have done or left undone or forgotten entirely.
At this table, we remember our baptism in which we died to ourselves and were raised to new life in Jesus
At this table, we receive food which strengthens us for the journey through this week, this year, and even through the whole life we’ve been given.
Thanks be to God.