By Another Road

Journey of the Magi

Lessons: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Did you ever wonder about what happened to the wise men, the Magi, when they went back home?  Did they live happily ever after?  Were their lives changed?

The Magi were probably astrologers, perhaps from Persia, where Zoroastrians studied the stars for signs.[1]  Matthew’s point was that they were not from around here, not hometown folks.  They were foreigners, Gentiles, pagans.  In the ancient world, the appearance of a star or a constellation of stars was often associated with the birth of an important person.  So having seen the star and having interpreted it, as astrologers do, the Magi head out to see the child they refer to as the king of the Jews, bringing with them gifts fit for a king.

Well, this is news to King Herod and his courtiers in Jerusalem, and not good news.  Herod has his scribes and priests check the prophecies and they refer him to Micah, which says Bethlehem is where the new king will be born.[2]  Herod is afraid, perhaps because the one thing that the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power.[3]  Herod doesn’t have the love or loyalty of the people of Judea, who would be thrilled to hear there’s another king, a Jewish king who would fulfill the prophecy of this morning’s passage in Isaiah.  Herod built his reign on bloodshed and political tribute.  He had his main rival killed and he levied heavy taxes to pay off his sponsors in Rome.  He ignored Jewish law when following it was inconvenient.  When he couldn’t control the people through peaceful means he resorted to violence, secret police and mercenaries.[4]  Like all tyrants, Herod fears the people he oppresses, and he is driven by that fear.

So Herod takes steps to squelch this threat, too.  He tells the Magi to hurry along to Bethlehem to find this newborn king, and then come back and give him the details so he, too, can go pay homage.  We, the audience to this drama, are supposed to be imagining Herod twirling his mustache like Snidely Whiplash.  What Herod plans, of course, is something more dastardly – more deadly – than homage.

The Magi follow the star to Bethlehem and it takes them straight to Jesus.  We don’t know how old Jesus is at this point – a few days?  A few months?  Maybe even a couple of years old.[5]  When they find him, the three foreigners are so in awe that they fall on their knees in worship.  What did they see?  What could they understand about what they saw?  We don’t really know, except that it was an epiphany, a word that means “to reveal,” or “to make known,” and that they were overwhelmed with joy.[6]

I’m certain that when the Magi experienced that joy, they were struck by the contrast, by how different that joy felt from what they’d experienced in that secret meeting with Herod.  One felt so right.  The other felt so wrong.  Anytime we experience that kind of deep, true joy, it is God’s gift, and we know we’re where we are meant to be, doing what we’re meant to be doing.

Have you ever had such a moment?  Stop and call it to mind.  A moment when things really seemed to line up for you.  A moment when you saw things in a new way, even if you’d seen them a million times before.  A moment when things seem so right, so connected, so clear.  That is an epiphany.  The American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, described an experience he had in 1958: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.  It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race …  there is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. … I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.  If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all of the time.  There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…”[7]

I believe the magi experienced something like that when they saw the child Jesus.

And then, they had to go home.

So here’s the question: After the shimmering splendor of the star’s light and the wonder and mystery of having, at last, peered into the center of their hearts’ desire, after all that, did it make a difference back home on the mundane Monday morning of whatever the Magi equivalent was of taking out the garbage, and changing the diapers, and balancing the checkbook, and paying the bills, and attending the meetings, and driving the carpools, and figuring out the taxes, and calling on the clients, and getting their teeth filled, and planning the birthday party, and all the thousand and one things that it takes to live?[8]

And that is our question, on the twelfth day of Christmas – that’s what Epiphany is, the twelfth day of Christmas, as in that carol about the partridge in a pear tree.  After the anticipation and the celebration and the wonder of the holy night with the candles flickering and the smell of Douglas fir and the charming antics of the kids in the pageant, does the spirit of Christmas burn away like the morning fog in Marin?  When it’s time to drag the tree out to the curb, to straighten up the house, get back to school and return to work, are we not like the Magi going back home to their own country?

In W. H. Auden’s long poem, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” the poet describes this post­-Christmas mood:

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –

And the children got ready for school.

… To those who have seen

The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,

The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

Remembering the stable where for once in our lives

Everything became a You and nothing was an It. …[9]

 

It’s a wonderful line: “…where for once in our lives Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”  It’s the very epiphany that Merton describes.  The sense of wonder and joy at knowing we are connected and even holy, at knowing with every fiber of our being that we are all shining like the sun, that we are all worth God’s joining with us in this life on earth – all of us: Gentile and Jew, king and Magi, rich and poor, and every other condition of humanity.  It’s that joy we sense on Christmas Eve, it’s that holy moment that catches our imagination and that we still long to know right here in the midst of the old routines, right here where we are and always have been, in a world that Christmas doesn’t seem to have changed very much.

Matthew’s darker version of the Christmas story is an eternal story.  It is an ongoing story.  The world is still full of Herods, people with power who are driven by fear instead of love and wonder and joy.  A UCC pastor in New Hampshire posted this poem in late December:

 

Tale as old as time …

 

The little girl who was the Bethlehem star

in our Christmas pageant

two years ago

who led the magi on their wandering,

bright in her Belle dress

from Beauty and the Beast,

and then was held high by her mother

over the manger where the Christ-child lay –

has been deported.

 

There are so many modern Herods,

and the centurions of ICE

break down the doors of children still,

while there is

a rareness in traveling of wisdoms.[10]

 

There are so many modern Herods.  And that is what is at the heart of Matthew’s darker, more adult-oriented story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that it is precisely into this world that God came.[11]  And that like the Magi, we can choose to take another road, the road away from Herod, from all the modern Herods who hold onto their power or profit when our lives are shaped by fear rather than wonder and joy.  This story calls us to resist what fear does to us, what fear would have us do, including the fear that is disguised as cynicism, that subtle cynicism that says wonder and dreams and imagination are not for practical men and women; the cynicism that would scoff at the notion that, indeed, we are all walking around, shining like the sun.  It is the Herods who have a stake in making sure we don’t believe that.

One of the teachers at our preschool has this bumper sticker on his car: “I am one epiphany short of a paradigm shift.”  That is in fact the purpose of an epiphany.  The Sunday before Advent, Diana preached a sermon about Charles Dickens’ little novella, A Christmas Carol, a story about a man who has a significant epiphany, and a paradigm shift.  If you prefer to watch a version rather than read the book, do not choose the Disney animated version because even though it has very cool computer-generated animation, Disney’s Scrooge is terrified into his epiphany, whereas in the book, and in the good productions[12] it is so abundantly clear that Scrooge’s heart has been touched, that his heart has been melted by compassion and pity.  And at the end of the story, Scrooge delivers the best line of all: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”[13]

Brothers and sisters, that is why we are here.  May it be so, for you, and for me.  Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2013


[1]  Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretation: Matthew (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993), p. 13.

[2]  Micah 5:2.

[4]   Jona Lendering, “King Herod the Great,” http://www.livius.org/he-hg/herodians/herod_the_great02.html.

[5] “If the wise men arrived at the exact time of Jesus’ birth, the thinking goes, why would Herod have wanted every child up to two years old put to death?  This has led many biblical scholars, therefore, to believe that the wise men’s visit, if indeed it even was an historical event at all, could have been up to two years after Jesus was born.” Todd B. Freeman, “The Magi: An Epiphany Story,” January 2, 2011, collegehilltulsa.org/documents/1-2-11_Magi_Epiphany_Story.pdf.

[6]  Matthew 2:10.

[8] Harry H. Pritchett, “Another Way Home,” January 7, 1996, http://www.day1.net/index.php5?view=transcripts&tid=467.

[9]  W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” (1942) is a poem of about 1,500 lines (52 pages).  You can see the portions of the poem excerpted in this sermon at http://www.cs.utsa.edu/~wagner/church/auden/index.html.

[10]  Maren Tirabassi, “The Star Goes Ahead of Us,” December 29, 2012, http://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/791/.

[11]  Lose, ibid.

[12]  My personal favorite is the production starring Patrick Stewart as Ebenezer Scrooge, directed by David Hughes Jones and adapted by Peter Barnes, produced for television in 1999.  See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0216621/.

[13]  Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843, Chapter 4, http://www.literature.org/authors/dickens-charles/christmas-carol/chapter-04.html.

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