Sunday, January 10. 2016
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
So what did your horoscope predict for you today? My horoscope for the year says “You’re a rising star in 2016, Aquarius, when all hard work is acknowledged and rewarded…This year you will recognize potential that others may overlook. The Moon-Saturn opposition in your 2016 chart guarantees careful thinking and planning that won’t let you down. A Mercury-Pluto conjunction will give you the nerve to be bold, but only when it’s wise…Your 2016 strong Mars in Scorpio won’t let you sit still for long.” And finally, “Saturn in Sagittarius is your friend. Embrace it!” Well, who knew I needed to embrace Saturn in Sagittarius? It would take a wise one from somewhere outside my usual circles to make sense of all this for me.
I begin with this to exaggerate what we have come to know and expect of astrology today. But astrology was once an important scientific and religious field. Wise ones from more than one religious tradition studied the stars for signs of both secular and sacred import. These visitors who show up in Jerusalem looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews” are serious scholars, high priests, respected figures held in esteem in the land from which they’ve come. Some contemporary scholars say they come from Persia and are practitioners of the Zoroastrian religion. Others say they were from the star-studying traditions of ancient Babylon.
Wherever they’ve come from, it is a curious thing that they show up in the Christmas story and play a major role in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. In our conflated version of Christmas, the magi have been hanging out in the stable, huddled around the manger, since the beginning of Advent. Of course, that’s not what Matthew tells us at all. In this gospel there is no stable or manger or animals, no shepherds or even angel choirs. The magi – note they are not kings, though they may in some way represent the king of their country – show up at a house in Bethlehem sometime after the birth, led there by the fantastic star they’ve seen in the early morning sky.
In Matthew, this is a story of political intrigue. As foreign dignitaries, perhaps ambassadors, the magi make their way to the capital city, to the palace of the current king. This seems like a logical progression. Where else would you find the new-born king except in the palace? Of the course the reigning monarch is delighted to greet them – not! In an effort to figure out what is happening, Herod summons his own wise men, the high priests and scribes. Note how all these religious figures play roles in the affairs of state.
When his advisers – I imagine somewhat reluctantly, given Herod’s despotic reputation – tell him about this special baby, this anointed one, this messiah who is to shepherd Israel, Herod begins to scheme. In his most beguiling and unctuous manner, he questions the magi and then sends them off to Bethlehem with instructions to “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.” Right! He surely intends to bow down before some baby born in a backwater village to strangers and just turn the kingdom over to him on the spot. We know from what comes later that he fully intends to murder the baby and do away with the threat to his rule.
Fortunately, there is regular angelic intervention in Matthew’s story. The magi are warned to sneak out of town a different direction and Joseph is warned to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. It sounds like a refugee situation to me. Imagine, the king of the Jews, the messiah, the shepherd of Israel, begins his life fleeing political oppression, not unlike children of our own time, many of whom are not blessed to survive.
Love leads on. It burns in a mysterious star, leading serious seekers for wisdom and truth from Iraq or Iran to Israel. It speaks in dreamy angel whispers, leading pilgrims and refugees to safety from vicious despots and the threat of destruction. It draws peasant parents into welcoming and caring for Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh. Love leads on and nothing will ever be the same.
This is wonderful and intriguing story, in particular because it tells how love leads us out of religious convention, into strange and unexpected relationships. Here are pagan priests and princes, kneeling in adoration at the crib of a Jewish peasant child who becomes, for Christians, the Lord of all life and Savior of the world. Wonder of wonders! How can this be? Yet there it is in the very beginning of Matthew’s good news! A religious pluralism implying that in God all things come together.
Thinking on this lovely story led me to consider others related to it. I re-read O. Henry’s wonderful tale of “The Other Wise Man.” If you want a richly imagined account of who the magi were, where they came from and what their life was like, I recommend you take a few minutes and look at this classic short story. The gist of the story is that Artaban, the other wise man, is to meet his compatriots, Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior for the journey to Jerusalem. His gifts are three magnificent jewels, a ruby, a sapphire and a pearl.
As he rushes to meet the others at the appointed time and place, he comes across a dying man. He knows that stopping to care for the man means he may miss the rendezvous with his fellow travelers. He is torn between pausing to help or racing on. “Should he risk the great reward of his faith for the sake of a single deed of charity? Should he turn aside, if only for a moment, from the following of the star, to give a cup of cold water to a poor, perishing [man]?”
“‘God of truth and purity,’ he prayed, ‘direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which Thou only knowest.’” He chooses to help the man, losing the opportunity to join the caravan of the other magi. He must sell his sapphire to outfit his own caravan for the long, perilous journey across the desert. Eventually, he arrives in Bethlehem a few days too late. There he is welcomed by the mother of a small child who tells him of the other strangers who were indeed there but left mysteriously under cover of night and of the young family who fled to Egypt. He finds he must use his ruby to ransom this mother’s child from the murderous hands of Herod’s henchmen as they move through Bethlehem, slaughtering the innocents.
After years of wasted wandering and fruitless seeking, he finds himself back in Jerusalem. The city is crowded for Passover and there is an ominous undercurrent to the day. Now old and despairing of ever finding the king, he gives his last jewel, his pearl of great price, to pay the debt of a young woman who is about to be dragged off to debtor’s prison. At the moment, an earthquake rumbles and a falling tile strikes the old man a mortal blow. As he dies in the young woman’s arms, she hears a faint, indistinct voice. The old man looks up and, with his dying breath, exclaims, “Not so, my Lord! For when saw I thee an hungered and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee? Three-and-thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.”
We all know the answer. Love leads on. What we expected, what we hoped for, may never be realized. If our prayer is truly “God of truth and purity, direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which Thou only knowest,” love will lead us on the way of compassion and healing, peace and justice, generosity and hospitality. In the end, we may hardly be aware of the good we’ve done, of the transformation we have helped engender, of the sacred we have encountered in the everyday – and God will say welcome home.
In one other favorite story, Gian Carlo Menotti’s beautiful contemporary opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, the three magi stop for a while in the humble hut of a poor woman with a crippled child. When the woman is caught trying to steal some of the gold for her poor son, the wise Melchior sings:
O Woman, you may keep the gold; the child we seek doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter; his haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us;
he will bring us new life, and receive our death.
And the keys to his city belong to the poor.
To return a lighter note, I posted a couple of related items to our Facebook page this week. To give a little consideration to wise women, I shared the observation that floats around this time of year: “Three wise women would have arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and there would be peace on earth.” Surely there is humor and wisdom here – and a kind of practical love that makes enormous difference in the world. There is a place for high-minded seekers and devoted religious practitioners. There is also space for practical folk who roll up their sleeves and take care of business. There is room for both, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t overlap on occasion.
Finally, I found this parable of a wise woman. It seems she was traveling in the mountains and found a precious stone in a stream. Shortly afterward she encountered a hungry traveler who begged her for something to eat. She shared her food with him and then he saw the beautiful stone. He asked her for it and without hesitation, she gave to him. Not exactly the response we would expect from others or ourselves. Just a little too much, yes? A few days later the man found the woman and returned the stone. Again we wonder why such unexpected behavior. He should be long gone with his treasure. But here is what he said to the very wise woman, “I know how valuable the stone is but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something more precious.” Greed? No. In all humility he asks, “Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.” Love leads on. It makes a way where there seems to be no way. It makes room where no space appeared available. It opens closed minds and cracks hearts of stone to let in the light, the light that illuminates all life and brightens every shadowed corner of existence. Love leads on. Will we follow? Amen.