I’ve loved the Magi since I was a kid.
I don’t know if it was their exotic nature, or that they were chasing stars across the desert, or that they were a sort of odd addition to the whole manger scene, but they have continued to keep my attention. As I learned to love poetry, I found that they show up there quite a bit: Yeats and Eliot wrote two of my favorites; Ramon Guthrie wrote one that found a place in my novel in search of a publisher (though I couldn’t find it online). James Taylor wrote one of his best songs about the Wise Men, as did Bill Mallonee. I am in good company as Wise Men Watcher.
I knew about their story long before I knew about Epiphany. Growing up Baptist meant I came late to learning about the liturgical year, the Twelve Days of Christmas, and the place the Magi take in shaping how we mark our days faithfully. Now their journey is part of my journey, as Christ is reborn and I wrestle with how to follow suit in my own existence, and how to choose which star to follow.
Advent and Christmastide are filled with the telling and, perhaps more importantly, retelling the stories that have shaped us. One, which Ginger retold in her sermon this morning, happened her first Advent in Winchester, Massachusetts. The youth group were responsible for the Christmas pageant. One eighth grade girl, Chiara, saw it as her chance to stretch her theatrical wings and saw the role of Herod as her ticket to greatness. Nothing would do but she play the part of the King, and Ginger was happy to oblige. Chiara was determined and demonstrative in her portrayal, stomping about the stage after the Wise Men left saying, “This child could be my downfall.”
Then she stopped as she ran head on into an Epiphany of her own: “Wait a minute,” she said, “Herod is a bad guy.”
The dictionary defines epiphany as:
- the manifestation of a supernatural or divine reality
- any moment of great or sudden revelation
As Ginger told the story I knew well and the Magi marched across my mind as they have done for many, many years, I had a realization of my own. Those three kings had not one epiphany, but two: they awakened to who Jesus was and also to who Herod was. They had realized neither until they got to town. Their awakenings even come through in what has become their theme song, I suppose, “We Three Kings” — the verse is in a minor key and the chorus, a major one.
Both realizations are essential. Without the Child, realizing who Herod is leaves us despairing, if not cynical. Without understanding Herod, the scene under the Star is little more than the stuff Christmas cards are made of. When we are awake to both realities, any trip to the Manger carries with it a call to justice.
And a call to do more, to let God’s grace and love infect every aspect of our lives. The Magi were warned in a dream, Matthew says, that they should not go back to Herod and give him directions to Jesus, so they “went home by another way.” James Taylor borrows the phrase and sings, “Maybe me and you should be wise guys too and go home by another way.” They didn’t allow themselves to contribute to the damage Herod wanted to do. Good for them and, when Herod couldn’t find Jesus he killed every little Hebrew boy he could get his hands on.
“Forgive us,” says my favorite prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, “for the things we have done and the things we have left undone.”
Let me quit sticking it to the kings and talk about me. Ginger told us this morning that twenty-seven percent of the children in Durham live in poverty. One in four. I cook dinner at the soup kitchen, I give food to the homeless people on the corner when I have it, I do blah blah blah, and (not but), AND there’s a school bus that drops off a whole load of kids every afternoon that live in the less than habitable apartments two blocks from my front door and I don’t know the name of even one of them. I go home right by their houses and it’s not hard to see that many of them are in that twenty-seven percent. All of a sudden, I’m in another Bible story asking a grown up Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
And Jesus answers me — in Spanish.