The Second Sunday after Christmas, Year B
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
`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.'” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another roadMatthew 2:1-12
It has never been a secret that moms have superpowers. Though of the many powers they possess, most inexplicable is their ability to find almost any lost object. It is a well-documented phenomenon that after what seems to be an eternity of searching, checking, and re-checking places all over the house and all seems hopeless, asking mom will yield the following result: she will ask if you searched in the place that you are sure you checked at least three times, usually the second or third place you looked when the ordeal began. An eye-roll and protest will ensue, of course it can’t be there! You’ve already looked there at least three times! Despite the protest, she will insist, “Did you really look carefully?” Further eye-rolls and protestations, “yes, yes, of course”. The discussion will continue in circles until, finally relenting, her wisdom is heeded; and lo, before your very eyes, miraculously, the lost item is exactly where she said it would be! Though a well- known and empirically described phenomenon, science has yet to explain how exactly how this power works. Do they have some kind of pact with Saint Anthony, an ability to see into dimensions not yet understood by science? Or perhaps, knowing us so well, they are able to lift the veil from our eyes that do not see, and ears that do not listen. Perhaps all we need is a new perspective and a willingness to be led, as it is easy to lose oneself in all that searching.
The search today begins in the night sky, learned men in a land far to the east see something they had not expected. We cannot know what exactly they saw, perhaps it was a supernova, perhaps the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, perhaps it was not the stars that had changed but the magi’s interpretation. Whatever the cause, they knew a star was rising in the west, and being learned men, needed to further investigate what it signified. These men gather gifts befitting a monarch and begin their journey not knowing exactly where they were going, but confident that they will be led to where they are needed.
Who are these men? Though several traditions and popular music call them kings, they are most likely court astrologers for the Persian king. They were diviners, people who read the natural world and interpreted it to the king; namely looking for signs showing favor or displeasure from the gods when the king was making important decisions, such as when to go to war. Though interpreting world events from the positions of the cosmos is the most glamourous part of their job, in many ways their most important task was to serve as the king’s advisors and as diplomatic envoys. They came from a tradition reaching as far back as the birth of civilization, and their craft was the beginnings of the study of mathematics, astronomy, and physics. Though they were proto-scientists and scholars, their real skill was in handling monarchs. Of all the signs they read in the natural world, none were as important to them as reading the look on their king’s face, especially when delivering bad news.
Still not sure where they are going, they assume that they are meant to go to Jerusalem, the center of power, and the place of kings. After all, the star did indicate a new king. They did find a king in Jerusalem, though not the one they were looking for. They find king Herod a paranoid man, as when they deliver the news that a new king is coming, it strikes terror rather than joy into his heart. Suddenly scholars and learned men in Jerusalem are gathered, the chief priests and scribes pouring over Scripture searching for signs of the Messiah. They all are afraid of the news these foreigners are bringing, as they had been so lost in their searching for salvation in the usual centers of power, wealth, and privilege that they could not see the signs indicating God coming to raise up the lowly and send the rich empty away. Though it had been plainly before them in Scripture they claimed to revere, these foreigners, pagans, outsiders, who did not fully understand what they were seeing, were unexpectedly, and unknowingly, sharing God’s prophetic message of the Messiah’s coming. The chief priests and scribes discover from Micah 5:2 and other passages that Bethlehem must be where the Messiah is. With their eyes that could not see and ears that could not listen they must have been surprised that the Messiah was expected to appear in the country backwater that was Bethlehem. After all, Jerusalem was the place of kings and centers of power. But to anyone who was not so lost in their searching and had even the most basic knowledge of Jewish history would not be surprised, after all, Bethlehem was the hometown of King David, and the place where he had been anointed King of the Jews centuries ago (I Samuel 16:13).
Perhaps out of embarrassment, perhaps out of fear, Herod and his followers send the magi to Bethlehem in secret. The magi do not protest or even ask for clarification. After all, they are good at reading signs, and they can interpret Herod’s true meaning when he says he wants to pledge the new-born king “homage”. So, still not entirely sure where they are going, they go to Bethlehem.
In Bethlehem they let themselves be led by the star that had called them out of the places of power from the east and from Jerusalem, until they found themselves at a humble home. In it, they had the good sense to ask a mother where the king might be. Finding him and his mother Mary, they paid Jesus homage, giving him gifts. These gifts indicating to us, the readers, Jesus’ royalty in the gold, his divinity in the priestly frankincense, and foreshadowing his death in the burial perfume myrrh. At last they had completed their mission, they had found the king.
Only now as their task is completed do they receive any kind of confirmation from God. Though clearly God had been leading them the whole time, only after they witness God Incarnate do they see a messenger of God. They are told by an angel not to return to Herod, though being wise men who were accustomed to handling false kings, I imagine the warning was more of a confirmation of their plan rather than a new revelation to them. So they return home by another road, a path perhaps not intended, but one they were willing to be led on.
There is a tremendous amount of irony in this story. Those who should be seeking out and following God’s plan are so accustomed to their comfort and even the search itself, that they cannot see the Truth that sleeps in swaddling clothes just a few miles away. They who have all the power, prestige, and tools required to fulfill God’s plan and herald the new king cannot even find him until confronted by an outsider’s perspective. As for the magi, they find what they had not even been looking for, yet do not hesitate to follow where God leads them, even though for all their learning and wisdom, have only the faintest idea what they are witnessing. Though they lack full knowledge of the circumstances, they are wise in their response, they listen and offer themselves.
Yet nearest to the heart of it all, who we often lose in our searching, is Mary, a humble mother who outshines all the men in their power, wealth, and wisdom by not needing to search at all. From the beginning she has listened to God’s call, and followed where God led her. She who treasures the words of shepherds and magi in her heart, knows what is happening more than the wise, the powerful, the privileged. Like all mothers, Mary shares that inexplicable gift of finding what is lost right in front of our very eyes. A reflection of God our Heavenly Mother, who despite our protests and insistence that we have looked everywhere for salvation, leads us back to a little home in Bethlehem where we might still give homage to the King of Kings. Amen.