Star of wonder, star of light lead our minds and hearts this morning as you lead those very wise seekers so long ago that we too may arrive at a place of understanding that is simple, and holy, and with Christ. Amen.
This morning we are observing the Feast of the Epiphany, when the wise men from the east arrive at the manger. Little Jesus’ first companions are humble folk with, as our lore teaches us, clear eyes, strong faith, gentle natures and pure hearts. Last to come are the wealthy easterners – kings, as our lore teaches us – who represent the acknowledgement of Christ’s own kingship. We know very little about these men from scripture; in fact it is our lore that instructs us to call them kings, to give them names, and to create from that whole identities: Melchior becomes the King of Persia, Gaspar is the King of India, and Balthazar the King of Arabia, why not. They’ve also been identified as Shem, Ham and Japheth, the original ancestors of three races of humankind according to the Book of Genesis. Matthew does not call them kings but magi, probably best translated as astrologers. Astrology was popularly considered an “eastern” practice, and would help explain the intentional star-study that prompted their visit. All of this, plus their professed ignorance of messianic teachings, suggest that they were Gentiles. And as for their number, references to them in the plural indicate that there was more than one, but the popular understanding that there were three is drawn only from the mention of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Many men may have traveled, bringing these gifts in varying proportions. One of my favorite Far Side cartoons depicts a man walking away at night, sulking, from a lit-up primitive adobe dwelling, several horses parked outside; it has the caption: “Actually, there were four wise men from the East, but one of them forgot to bring a gift.” The cartoonist wasn’t intending to make a point of exegesis, but such a point is well-taken!
This Epiphany season I am not concerned with who these gentlemen were, but why then came, and how. It is certain that they were seekers, and that is the beginning of wisdom. They looked for meaning behind what is visible to the naked eye. Some very divine inspiration caused them to recognize one star as the herald of the newly born King of the Jews. Beyond their Gentile teachings, beyond their grasp of all that is tangible, these very wise men had a belief in a beyond. I think of some lines by George Santayana: “It is not wisdom to be only wise, and on the inward vision shut the eyes, but it is wisdom to believe the heart. Columbus found a world and had no chart save one that faith deciphered in the skies. To trust the soul’s invincible surmise was all his science and his only art.” These astrologers saw that star not simply as an object of their study, but as an invitation to journey, to adventure, to possible transformation. There was a message in the star; they knew it was a sign. Some modern astrologers and biblical scholars are sure that the star was Halley’s Comet or Venus rising. I’d like to think that if I saw a star that heralded the new Messiah’s birth – or any other message from God – that I would be wise enough to stop explaining and just believe, but I’m not so sure.
What hopes must this star have awakened in these wise men! What great expectations did this star arouse to inspire courage in these non-believing believers to risk banditry, ridicule or disappointment as they made their gold-laden way across the desert? I think they must have had a tremendous hope that something new could happen in this tired world. Was it hope of some kind of salvation that drew them onward? “We have come to pay him homage”, is all they say, but this is no run-of-the-mill social house call. Their hopes for transformation are resting with a person – a child – not with an ideology, a discipline, a political system, a brand of psychoanalysis. When we make a journey that is no simple road trip but a spiritual journey to the edge of our personal horizon, we realize that we are traveling toward ourselves, toward who we were created to be. I think the wise men discovered this on the road as well.
They arrived in Jerusalem – that made perfect sense; they were looking for the King of the Jews – why not go to the capital, the seat of power? They speak to the current ruler installed by Rome, but a Jew, although of Edomite descent. Herod oozes charm with them, I am sure. They are dignified, they are bearing costly tributes, but they are not for Herod. They are for his rival. Their question to him is completely well-intentioned, it is innocent, but it informs Herod of what he did not know: The Messiah has been born. Herod is responsible for his own actions, but the astrologers have unwittingly tipped him off. He sends them on to Bethlehem, which his chief priests have to remind him will be the site of the Messiah’s birth, with instructions to find the child and report back to him his exact whereabouts. In a dream the astrologers are warned to take another route home, and when Herod learns that they have duped him he sends his henchmen out to kill all little boys under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem. How many well-intentioned souls since then have unwittingly triggered the rage of butchers?
With the story of Epiphany, Herod takes center stage in our hearts’ own Christmas pageant, and he belongs there. A Christmastide and Epiphany without Herod is sanitized, it is unreal. So much about the incarnation of God in the Christ child is sweet and lovely, but we must not forget that from the moment of his birth there were many in power who wanted him dead. If Jesus incarnates God, Herod incarnates evil. Christmas is about joy and peace and goodwill as much as it is about the underside of human brutality, of poverty, of selfishness and abuse of power. Herod worries us still – we leave him out of our nativity scenes, retailers keep him out of department stores (can you imagine taking your children to sit on his lap?). But we leave him out of our Epiphany season observances at our own peril. Just as the Christ child is well-known to many around the world, Herod is also still very present to untold numbers. He wears the military fatigues of a dictator. He sends his squads out into the Brazilian night to murder children so destitute that they have no roof over their heads. Herod sells Thai and Cambodian boys and girls into prostitution to service wealthy westerners. His car bombs pick off dozens of innocents at a time. Herod is a part of Epiphany, then and now.
He was, as I’ve said, a Jew; his chief priests and scribes were leaders of the religious community. How curious, then, that non-Jews from far away were the ones to point out to them that in a city nearby the Messiah had been born. How about all the faithful of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Judea? If some of them had noticed a curious star, they certainly didn’t understand it. Epiphany is a reminder then to us all that those outside our communities may have a clearer vision and understanding of the truth we seek, which hovers over our heads. From a distance they achieve a critical perspective on our faith, on our practice, which we, through familiarity or ennui, may have lost.
Some people took immediate notice of the star, and understood its meaning. Those poor shepherds are very dear to many of us. The simplicity and depth of their adoration is lovely to consider. Yet when I am honest with myself, I must admit that I have a lot more in common with those astrologers than I do with Jesus’ very first admirers. Evelyn Waugh has written a prayer and placed it in the mouth of St. Helen, a mother of the Emperor Constantine. I resonate very deeply with her sentiments; she addresses this prayer to the wise men:
“Like me, . . . you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way . . . How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!
“You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!
“Yet you came and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass.
“You are my especial patrons, . . . and patrons of all late comers, of all who had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.
“Dear Cousins, pray for me, . . . and for my poor overloaded son [Constantine]. May he, too, before the end find kneeling space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly . . . For his sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”
Christ was born poor and without a home. He needed shelter and a baby blanket and they brought him gold, frankincense and myrrh! Gifts worthy of a king (which he was), but not a vulnerable, cold newborn (which he also was). And they brought the wrath of a tyrant right behind them. These astrologers are my brothers indeed – they are polite in the face of abusive power, too well-heeled to speak the truth they may know when they at last have the opportunity. They are the learned, the oblique, the delicate – the very opposite of those shepherds. And they are late. Somehow, each Epiphany, I feel that I too may have arrived a bit late. At some point the Truth of the season hits me, and as it does I have the sneaking suspicion that humbler, more faithful souls, have arrived at this blessed understanding long before. “Confused with knowledge and speculation,” “standing in danger by reason of their talents,” Waugh’s little prayer to the wise men is discomfiting indeed.
W.H. Auden has also contemplated why these men made their journey, and on what must have filled their hearts. The astrologers of his imagination proclaim:
“To discover how to be truthful now
Is the reason I follow this star.
“. . . We anticipate or remember but never are.
To discover how to be living now
Is the reason I follow this star.
“. . . We have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are.
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow this star.”
We too can be in appropriate, late, even silly. We may only partially understand why we journey and where we are going to. (“Now we see in a glass dimly . . . ”) We would like to be truthful now, living now, human now. Epiphany is our reminder that there will still be kneeling space in the straw whenever we do arrive. For as the magi learned, it is not who you are or when you show up but why you come, and how. And thank God.
Christmas, The Living Pulpit, Volume 6, No.4, October – December 1997.