There was an Epiphany that found me travelling home from a small town the other side of Toronto. I carried, along with all my bags and books, the story of the magi that we heard today.
Drawn by the motion of travel into an interior world, in my imagination the magi journeyed again; their eyes on a star that hovered in their memories. In my imagination, as we drove that broad, flat stretch of 401, lo and behold they appeared; a caravan of wise ones, dressed in rich and bulky robes, each jammed into their own Smart car.
Down the 401 travelled this caravan of little cars carrying the wise and exotic travellers. Behind it came a van, driven by a harried looking servant, its backseat filled with star charts and telescopes. And, I could see through its rear window as it passed me, a pair of bejewelled slippers for man-sized feet placed hastily atop the magi’s bags. Bejewelled slippers, the toes curled up audaciously as if to announce the travellers’ beckoning otherness, their gifts of new worlds and new worldviews.
Foreignness, otherness, is most often named in the New Testament as Gentile. And Matthew’s Gospel has strong words and strong stories to speak about the inclusion of those others, those Gentiles, within God’s realm. Matthew’s is the only gospel that tells the story of the magi, those scholars learned in the ways of astronomy, those ones that came ‘from away’ as we Maritimers might say.
The Magi, from ‘away’ both in religious practice and in place of birth. Matthew’s is the only one of the four gospels that tells this story of these ones who were others to the first listeners, just as Matthew’s is the only Gospel that includes in an opening genealogy women, gentile women, anther group ‘from away’, another group excluded, another group with gifts to bring. As all of us in this world community, each of us ‘other’ to someone, have gifts to bring to one another’s birthing.
Matthew’s gospel has this as one of its themes. It appears in many ways throughout the Gospel this theme of God’s revelation to the Gentilesand of God’s revelation coming through the Gentiles. I wonder who are the Gentiles for our church establishment? And for whom are we other?
With this story of the Magi driving toward the place of revelation in Smart Cars or travelling on camels Matthew draws a picture of God’s revelation appearing not only in a place we might have never thought to look but through people we might have left out. As we read the story closely we see that the magi have much to teach us about God and God’s self-revelation in Christ. These scholars who represent those that are other, those from away, those that are Gentile have steeped themselves in their own tradition. Theirs is not a sketchy knowledge. They have, throughout their lives, devoted time to studying things fundamental to the life they practice. They have given themselves wholeheartedly to their tradition. It affects the way they live. They are preparing themselves to receive revelation. They are, whether they know it or not, in this story, preparing to look for the Child.
And these scholars, though they immerse themselves in book-learning, are still open to unwritten experience. They go outside and search the sky.They settle their scholars’ shanks onto camels or stuff them into tiny cars and they go out into the world. They take a chance on travelling to a place where the things they know are disdained and the customs they practice are suspect.
They take a chance.
Shining out of their study and their tradition they have found a star that calls them and they take a chance on following that call. They are opening themselves to receive revelation. They are opening themselves to recognize someone who will take them beyond the threshold of their learning and practice, beyond the limits of their knowing. Led by a wild star they are come to the Child.
Do they make mistakes? Perhaps, for in their search for the new born king, the magi head to the conventional place where a king would be found: They head to Jerusalem, the seat of power. Perhaps those cramped travellers imagined on the 401 were heading for Toronto to see the premier of Ontario or to Ottawa to see if the Prime Minister might have news for them of the Child born.
The magi go to Jerusalem and speak with Herod, and the scribes and priests of the people, the civil and religious elite. And these powerful ones give to the magi the words of the prophecy handed down among them for centuries. A promise to answer their people’s yearning.
And you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
For from you shall come a ruler
Who is to shepherd my people Israel. Micah 5:2
The scribes and priests recite these words but do they grab their cloaks from the hooks and head out with the magi to see the One their people have longed for? No, they settle back into themselves and try to find a diversion that will continue their numbness and distract them from their fear. They turn away from revelation. They don’t dare to find the Child.
This is no pointing of fingers at any particular faith tradition; this is the non-response of many of us who are too afraid or too comfortable.
We would rather live in the familiar dim of our world. The magi though set off for tiny Bethlehem. Into the night they go, into the dark and the cold their backs cramped and rigid and their servants grumbling, their camels moving on under protest. Into the unsoftened night they go and as they go that very star that had called them out in the beginning again appears in the sky and their backs straighten and their servants’ voices fade and they ignore their recalcitrant camels’ protests and follow.
They are on a pilgrimage to revelation. They are travelling to find the Child. And then that star stopped and something or someone in the moment of its stopping overwhelmed them with joy.
Now we may speculate about the stopping of a star. We may speculate about many things but whatever conclusions we come to we are faced with this picture of bone-weary travellers, people from away, fatigue etched on their faces, lines set round their mouths, far from home,
We are faced with sober travellers, diligent scholars, sliding from camels to run in pointed shoes to a shed lit by a star. We are met by these others,these ones from away overcome with joy. Overcome. They have been met by God’s revelation and something has shifted in their hearts.
Here too they teach us; for their response to this overwhelming joy is worship. In our scripture this morning we read that they paid homage but a stronger translation of the word would be worship, a type of devotion shown truly only to God. They worship, these wildly joyful ones, getting down on middle aged knees to bow in front of the tenderness of God; touching foreheads to the ground before the starlight met in this manger. They are not afraid to lay everything aside and worship for here is the star-Child.
They brought gifts we hear, gold, frankincense and myrrh. We can see them, learned heads still touching the hay strewn floor, beckoning with long arms to the servant to bring in the gifts from the van and he does. They have to leave of course. There is life to be lived outside the stable. But they go with the star hovering in their minds. They have left behind other gifts for the Child and for us, their diligence in their own tradition,their willingness to leave the place where they are comfortable to follow a call, their ability to make mistakes and move on, their openness of heart to be touched by God, “the love that moves the stars”, (Dante, Paradiso xxxiii).
They teach us too to be fearless enough to be overwhelmed by joy and to both forget and find ourselves in worship. Finally they teach us, these others, after such an encounter, to return to life another way.
We have found the child, this Christmas, we have been met by God and so if we have searched and found as the wise ones have we will never return the same way. We will be changed . . . again.
They have to leave of course. And so do we. None of us can stay forever by the manger. And so they go, folding themselves into Smart Cars or clambering up on camels they go. And as we turn to leave, as we fill our hearts with a backward glance at the manger, the Child given for us we see at its foot a tiny pair of slippers – bejewelled child-sized slippers the toes audaciously curved as if to announce their foreignness – bejewelled slippers to remind us of the presence of those guests, unexpected by us perhaps, but welcomed by God at this place of birth.