by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Nations will be drawn to your light, and kings to the dawning of your new day.” Isaiah 60, 1-6
Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We have seen his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2, 1-12
In his book Table Talk: Beginning the Conversation on the Gospel of Matthew (New City Press, N.Y. 2009), Jay Cormier describes the response of the members of a parish community after their church was destroyed by fire. He writes:
“As soon as the fire marshal gave the all-clear, the devastated pastor and parishioners combed the rubble to salvage the few things they could. Then interesting things began to happen. A nearby church – a congregation that the displaced congregation had little to do with before – offered them the use of their religious education building for services and meetings for as long as they needed it. Churches from nearby towns offered hymnals and other supplies; several churches took up a special collection for the congregation.
At the first service following the fire, the members of the congregation, who were used to sitting in their “own” places at a comfortable distance from one another, found themselves sitting side-by-side on folding chairs. After the service, teams started to form to deal with insurance, organize temporary arrangements for parish programs and religious education, and sketch out preliminary plans for a new church…Parishioners who knew one another only by name, who, until then, had exchanged only pleasant but perfunctory hellos on Sundays, were now working together to rebuild not just their beautiful building but the community they had taken for granted. And in the grief and loss they felt that Sunday morning they prayed and sang in a way few had ever experienced before. In the new journey they had begun as a church, they had rediscovered the God within them.”
The members of that small community had experienced an “epiphany” – the manifestation or appearance of the holy within and among them.
Today’s gospel presents the story of how a group of sages or astrologers from the east embarked on a long and risky journey in search of an unknown, newborn king, with the light of a mysterious star to guide them. Matthew is the only Gospel-writer to include this story, and it’s a story that has attracted many additions since Matthew’s time. Note that he doesn’t call the visitors “kings”, he does not record how many there were and he doesn’t give them names. By telling the story the way he does, Matthew offers his audience a preview of what is to come in his Gospel: Different people will have different reactions to the birth of Jesus. Those reactions parallel the later reactions to Jesus and what he taught in the course of his ministry.
The sages from the east did not arrive unnoticed. They were clearly a topic of conversation. Matthew tells us that when they announced the reason for their coming, “Herod was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem.” Herod’s reaction was to call in the chief priests and scribes for more information. Their response was what one might expect from totally disinterested bystanders. Without the slightest show of emotion, they identified Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah was to be born, and quoted from the prophet Micah to substantiate what they said. Yet, despite their pretended indifference, these religious leaders must have been taken aback by a group of exotic magicians, carrying horoscopes and gifts of aromatic spices.
Herod, on the other hand, called in these sages for close interrogation, specifying the questions to which he wanted answers. Warned in a dream to steer clear of Herod, they took a different road out of town. Herod’s feigned interest in wanting to worship this infant king heralded by the magi quickly evaporated. The credibility of the magi triggered his insecurity, which, in turn, fuelled his fury, which led to the irrationality of mass infanticide. Herod is testimony to the fact that even tyrants who behave like fools can be frighteningly dangerous.
In marked contrast to Herod and the Jewish religious leaders, the magi, who would have been seen as non-believers in the eyes of every true Israelite, came with open hearts and minds, ready to welcome whatever would be revealed to them. Theirs was a journey of faith, a search for the things of God. In that respect, their searching mirrors our life-long journeying to find and embrace the justice, peace, generosity and compassion that Jesus ushered into our world. Epiphany is an invitation to all of us to welcome into our lives Emmanuel, God-with-us, whose light helps us to see the presence of God in our midst, to recognise the God who is ever present, but not always apparent.
I offer a final comment on this wonderful magi story from that great scripture scholar, Raymond Brown. He notes how Christians, over the years, have set their imaginations to work on Matthew’s original story. Even now, children shape it in their own way to make it meaningful. One small boy from England recently volunteered: “The three wise men brought Jesus some gold stuff, but Legos would have been better.” In his book, The Birth of the Messiah, Brown comments that Matthew would have been thrilled with the way we Christians have coloured his magi story with the crayons of our imagination. The exotic details which Matthew provided invite us to imagine the unimaginable: that God has turned the face of welcome and mercy to every people and nation on earth; that magi from the East, hippies from San Francisco and mountain dwellers from Bolivia can all find their way to God. This story of the magi opens for us all the story of Jesus, Emmanuel, coming to live as one of us, assuring us that there is a place for all of us in his circle, whether we come from near or far, from a recognized faith or no faith at all. It was no wonder that Herod and all of Jerusalem were set on edge when the magi turned up from nowhere asking for the king of the Jews. Yet, despite his ambitions, Herod had no control over who would get access to the king the magi had come to find. Just a week ago, children across the globe dressed up in bathrobes and cardboard crowns, and made their way down church aisles, imagining that they had an integral role in the great event of Christmas. They were surely onto something that many of us still have to learn.