TEXT: Matthew 2:1-12
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When you hear this part of the Christmas story, what do you think of? For many of us, what comes to mind is a Sunday School pageant: three kids in cardboard crowns proceeding down the centre aisle. Or perhaps you envision a manger scene, where royal-looking figurines take their places next to the shepherds and the angels and the baby Jesus and his parents.
Is that what you think of? Do you ever wonder about the real “wise men”—the “Magi” of history and poetry?
In actual fact, while the shepherds and angels were certainly there on the day of Jesus’ birth, the wise men probably were not. If you look carefully at chapter two of Matthew, you’ll notice it says the wise men visited Jesus in a “house”—not in a cave or a stable, which is where a manger would have been. It sounds like they’ve arrived some time after Jesus’ birth—but before Mary and Joseph had departed from Bethlehem.
Here’s something else. Even though we love to sing, “We three kings of Orient are”—with or without an exploding cigar—these men probably were not literally kings (although, to the locals in Bethlehem, they must have looked the part). They are more accurately described as “wise men” or Magi.
That is, they were scholars or sages—learned men who sought to understand wisdom and unravel mysteries. Think of them as astronomers, or scientists, or mathematicians. The sky was their business. They studied the stars and planets, making careful observations of heavenly bodies and their movements. And so—when one particular star started doing odd things—they were intrigued. Here was something their science could not explain.
By the way, our science can’t explain it, either! Nobody knows what the Star of Bethlehem truly was. Some have said that it was an angel, or the Holy Spirit, or even Christ himself in celestial form. More recent theories include a comet or a supernova. Or even a flying saucer.
Then there’s this idea that there were three of them. The Bible does not actually say that. Matthew tells us the wise men brought three kinds of gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), but he says nothing about the quantity of these gifts, or about the number of men who came bearing them. Some paintings in Christian catacombs depict two Magi, others have four. One ancient text lists 12, others imagine many more. So there’s no real agreement on the number of “wise men” who made the journey to visit the Christ Child.
Neither do we have a clear idea of their nationality. The most popular theory is that they were from Persia—but some traditions hold that they came from Babylon or Arabia or even China. We don’t really know. And therefore, we also don’t know for sure how far they had to travel, or for how long they were on the road.
Many early Christians thought it took them two years, based on Herod asking the Magi when the star appeared, coupled with his subsequent command to kill all male infants under the age of two (if you recall that terrible part of the story).
Two years. That’s some road trip!
But—however many they were, or how long it took them—it must have been an arduous journey, fraught with peril. Especially since they were transporting gold and other valuables, they could have been targeted by bandits and thieves. Not to mention being in danger from wild animals, inclement weather, sickness, accident—and possibly even starvation, if they lost their way in a desolate region.
I find myself wondering about these travelers. Why would they undertake such a hazardous expedition?
It might have been scientific curiosity. Like I said, the Magi were among the most learned people of their day. But still, to make a journey of perhaps two years’ duration under those conditions … that’s remarkable. They would be risking their fortunes and their reputations, as well as their lives.
And for what? In the end, these men who had travelled so far and so long to see royalty found themselves kneeling before a tiny child born to poor parents in an out-of-the-way place.
What stirred in their hearts to compel them to risk so much?
What led them to travel so far—what deep yearning for something beyond what they had known?
As I ponder those questions, I find myself thinking about … well … all of us. I find myself wondering about other journeys taken … and about what it is that makes such journeys possible. Or necessary. Or preferable to the status quo.
What sign in the sky—what communication from God—would compel me to go to such lengths to discover its meaning?
And then it strikes me that those travelers to Bethlehem were simply living out their lives to their natural conclusions. After all, their life’s work was studying the heavens. And so—when they saw a star which appeared to hold such significance—all they could do, if they were to be faithful to their calling …
All they could do was follow it.
So—having observed the night sky, and having been drawn by one particular star—when they came to the place to which it led them, they were met there by … God! Now, that couldn’t have been at all what they expected. At least, they wouldn’t have expected to meet God in the form and circumstances presented to them there. Yet, in that baby—or, in that toddler, as he may very well have been by the time they saw him—they met the Holy One, face-to-face.
All they were doing was what they believed they were called to do. And yet, at the same time, this was probably much more than they bargained for. I mean, packing up to travel to far-flung places was hardly in the job description of a first-century astronomer. No. They would have been accustomed to life in the academy—to sitting in a quiet, familiar place, making observations and taking notes and sharing their insights with others.
This journey they set out on, though … and all they experienced through it … it must have changed them, stretched them, transformed them. Their epiphany was not only about God being revealed to them; it was about discovering their own true purpose. They might have said it was about fulfilling their destinies. Following a star, they encountered the Maker of stars.
This can be so for all of us, I believe. When we follow a star—especially one which leads us out of our most comfortable zones—we, also, may encounter the Divine in an unlikely place. As we use and develop the gifts that God has planted within us—as we become all we were made to be, with eyes and hearts open—perhaps we will find epiphany, as well.
May it be so for us, in this new year.