Lauren J. McFeaters
January 5, 2020
Jump to audio
In some ways it’s not fair.
It’s not fair for the Wise Men to arrive early.
It’s not fair for them to arrive on Christmas Eve. The Wise Men travel farther than anyone, so when they finally arrive on the scene, scripture tells us they completely miss the angels and shepherds, the straw and manger.
But like every Christmas Pageant that ever was, they can’t be kept out. They get to make their dramatic entrance as they float down the aisle: walking like brides with that step and a half, step and a half; wearing Pageant finery, sporting lopsided crowns, carrying in outstretched hands, presents for the baby Jesus; presents in glass bottles that once contained aftershave and perfume, or an old cigar box covered in gold paper.
And in every single Christmas season we await their arrival, so the tableau is complete. Christmas is here. Bethlehem can rest. Final pause, long beat, and cut! That’s a wrap!
But just when the Wise Men have been reduced to pointy hats and empty bottles of cologne; just when the church is ready to pack up the candles and the Advent Wreath, we receive a this story from Matthew for the 12th Day of Christmas.
Who are these Wise Men? Magi is the Greek word used to identify Babylonian and Zoroastrian astrologers. And only in Matthew’s Gospel do these stargazers play a role. We know them as traveling ambassadors, literate political figures, emissaries from the courts of the East.[i] But so much of it we get wrong.
Scripture never calls them Kings. Scripture doesn’t say there are three. It’s only from oral tradition, and not scripture, that we associate their names and countries: Balthasar from Arabia, Caspar from India, and Melchior from Persia.
We don’t even know that they were men. Because, come on, you know the old joke – I just have to say it again: “Three Wise Women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, swept the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.”
Whatever their number or identity, most important to our Gospel lesson is that the Wise Ones are Gentiles. The very first seekers to find Jesus are those outside of the covenant; from countries across the border and outside the Empire. All people will see it together.
Yet for all their wisdom, they’re not mind readers. They possess no special knowledge that allows them to travel directly to Bethlehem. And they’re naive. Dealing with stars and charts, their eyes on the world above them, they’ve not understood the likes of Herod.[ii]
In his poem, “Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot paints for us a picture of the Wise Men, very unlike the ones we’ve come to know through our pageants and nativities. Eliot writes this in the voice of a Magi:
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year for a journey,
and such a long journey:
the ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
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 Birth, certainly, we had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different… [iii]
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different…
Eliot has it right. There is perhaps no other biblical narrative that sets before us both the joys of birth and the terrors of death; the delights of a new hope and the despair of the crucifixion to come.
“Birth or Death? I had seen birth and death
but had thought they were different.”
A harsh reality for the Christmas season when what we want most is to surround ourselves with family and friends, to keep our children safe; to keep our loved ones healthy, to keep those lights up, at least one more week.
But if we pay attention and look closely, tucked into countess nativities and pageants; right there, laid before us, as the Magi stretch out their gifts, lies the true present himself: that baby is our Priest and our Salvation.
And like it or not, Christmas or not, he takes our hand, won’t let us stay at the stable, leads us into a very grown-up world where faith is tested, and injustice must be faced down with a maturity, and the corruption of the humankind must not be allowed to corrupt our souls.
And so we follow. Due north, up the road, over the hill to where he demands our trust, our faithfulness, our devotion, and our honor.
It’s a sobering message, this Epiphany. There’s no respite for the Christian. There never is. There never will be. Because the Christian life is not birthed in sweet gentleness. It’s exhilarating and stirring – Yes. Absolutely. Sweet and mild – No. Never.
And then I look at this table.
And I don’t know what to say.
Because sometimes it’s too much. Too much Taste; Too much Goodness; Too much Truth; Too much Love. God’s Gift spread out before us. The body broken. The blood poured out.
But here’s the thing. Here’s the Taste of it; the Goodness of it; the Truth of it; the Love and Sacrament of it: In the face of death and all the dark nights of our souls; in the face of any Herod the world can produce; [iv] we belong, not to ourselves, but to the Present, the Gift.
In the face of death and all the dark nights of our souls; in the face of any Herod the world can produce; we belong, not to ourselves, but to Him.
[i] The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 10NT.
[ii] John Indermark. Setting the Christmas Stage: Readings for the Advent Season. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2001, 68-70.
[iii] T. S. Eliot. The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1971, 68-69.
[iv] Inspired and adapted from a poem by Ann Weems, “The Christmas Spirit,” in Kneeling in Bethlehem. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987, 51.