It doesn’t take long for the mystery of Emmanuel, “God-with-us” to run up against the mystery of evil, or “darkness-against-us.” Even a casual reader of today’s gospel story can see that Matthew isn’t painting an idyllic Christmas card scene in his version of the nativity story. The emotional tone of his Christmas narrative is dark and foreboding, driven and dominated by Herod the Great’s plot to kill Jesus. It speaks of the murderous resistance of the violent rulers of the world to the coming of God’s reign.
Wise men from the East, Gentile strangers to God’s covenant who had scanned the heavens in search of divine purpose, had followed an unusual star seeking the child “born king of the Jews.” When Herod hears about the newborn “king” we read that “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Isn’t that odd? All Jerusalem was frightened along with Herod. Why frightened, when the birth of the Messiah should have been cause to rejoice? Why frightened when the arrival of the Magi from afar would have been like the circus coming to town?
In paintings and movies, the Magi are regally dressed, bearing precious gifts, and are accompanied by a retinue befitting royalty. But these visitors weren’t royal – quite the contrary. More like astrologers, Magi examined the stars and made predictions. For the devoutly religious in Jesus’ time, Magi were low on the religious and social order. Gentile foreigners were anathema primarily because of their foreign gods. The pious were told to avoid them for they were considered idol worshippers.
The Magi represent the outsiders, the outcasts, the untouchables, like the lepers, the cripples, the women and the Gentiles to whom Jesus will extend God’s gracious invitation of forgiving love and reconciliation.
Herod fakes interest and tells the Magi, “When you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Which is exactly what Herod was planning not to do. Instead, he would order the slaughter of the newly-born male children in Bethlehem to eliminate any possible threat to his throne.
Our gospel story opens the door for a new understanding of the “Good News.” Jesus, born in a small Jewish town, is visited by wise men from distant lands. God uses people from foreign lands, who practice other religions, to let King Herod, the Roman appointed “king of the Jews,” and the chief priests and scribes in on the news that their Messiah, the God-appointed “King of the Jews” has been born. These foreigners come into the midst of the chosen people and claim the truth for their own. And in so doing, they claim the truth for all people.
If the shepherds and these mysterious wise men from the East are welcome in the earliest stories of Jesus’ life, then who is left out? The early church has all sorts of characters in their community – not unlike the church today. Would anyone dare to exclude a person or group of people if the lowly shepherds and Magi were included in these early stories of Jesus?
God seems to do whatever it takes to reach out and embrace all people. The birth of the Messiah is announced to shepherds via angels on Christmas, to Magi via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities through these visitors from the East. Ultimately, Jesus will draw all people to himself as he is lifted up on the cross. In Christ, no one is beyond God’s embrace.
The story of the Magi is a journey narrative. They were people on a quest, looking for more in their lives. If they had been satisfied with the way things were, the status quo, they would have stayed put. Instead, we hear that their movement began with the light from a star in the dark of night. They got going because God showed them the light.
Like the Magi, we too are people on a journey. Are we like the Magi who follow the light and refuse to comply with the powerful who plot to destroy it? Are we like Herod, and “all of Jerusalem with him,” afraid of the changes that this Christ-child will bring to our lives? Or, are we among those who yearn for the coming of God’s reign based on justice and peace?
We who have seen the star and heard the angels sing are called to participate in this new birth and promise of transformation proclaimed by these Christmas stories. Are we going to sit back and wait for God to intervene or are we going to participate with God in bringing about the world promised by Christmas? Is something holding us back from taking “another road?”
In one of the longest nights of the year, a time of deep darkness, Jesus is born. He is, as the gospel writer John puts it, the light of the world, the true light that enlightens everyone. We are called to be emissaries of this Epiphany light and his message of Good News.
These are extraordinary times, and it seems the challenges to choose light rather than darkness have never been greater. But just as the wise men took their journey one step at a time, we are offered this vision of hope as we seek to bring the light of Christ into our world, one person, one step at a time.
Resources: Synthesis, 2008, 2015; Jude Siciliano, 2009; Marcus Borg & John Crossan, The First Christmas, 2007.