We know the story, don’t we?
A new star appears.
And, the Magi, whoever they were and wherever they were from, see it.
Tradition has transformed these little known stargazers into kings and given them names – Melchior, King of Persia, Gaspar, King of India and Balthasar, King of Arabia – but who they really were remains a mystery. The word magoi, which we know as wisemen, might be the name of a Persian priestly caste or it may mean magician, which is how the word is translated elsewhere in Christian scripture or it may refer to astrologers which, in this case, seems to be the preferred translation mostly because the primary actor in this story is the star. Regardless of who they were they not only see the star, but determine it is a sign and decide to follow it.
The star leads them first to Jerusalem and Herod.
Then to Bethlehem and Jesus.
And, arriving in Bethlehem, they bow in reverence to the child.
And offer their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Like you, I know the story.
But, to tell you the truth, I don’t really get it.
I don’t understand why the author of Matthew’s gospel composed it the way he did.
And reading commentaries on the text, I am not sure many Biblical scholars do either.
No one seems quite sure why Matthew, which scholars believe was written primarily for a Jewish audience, begins the gospel this way. There is speculation, of course. Maybe it is an attempt to piece various prophetic verses together. Or maybe it Is an attempt, in narrative form, to ask why it is that it is the Gentiles who see and follow the star and find their way to Jesus to worship him, while those who should be watching for some sign from God, miss it all together? Who knows?
As I thought about this story, shining star and wandering Magi. and, what it means for us today, I found my imagination spinning off in an entirely different direction from the way we usually think about the text. My day dreaming began during Advent, as I wrote this short reflection on the word Star.
To see stars
You have step from the light into the darkness.
And stand still.
And look up.
Or, lay on your back.
And gaze into the depths of space.
And dream dreams
Big enough and bold enough to reach from here to there.
But we are too busy for such nonsense.
And, too cautious about the darkness.
I imagine the Magi of old not as great and noble kings,
But more like Tom Sawyer
And Huckleberry Finn
Lying on their backs and looking at the stars.
And, saying to one another
“Look! There is another one. It looks like a bear”
“And another, it looks like a fish.”
“Look! There’s a new one we’ve not seen before.”
“I’m ready for an adventure. How about you?”
“Yes, Let’s go and see where it leads and what we find.”
What if the story behind the story of the Magi is more like that then like We Three Kings?
I don’t want to downplay the astrologers of old who were probably more closely related to the astronomers of today than to the check out counter horoscope writers, but, it does leave me wondering.
For us today, what does it take to see a star;
To see some new sign of God that others don’t see or don’t pay attention to and then to leave what we know behind to see where it leads? Isn’t the ability to do so more Huckleberry Finn-ish than We Three Kings-ish? Isn’t it more about stepping beyond what is practical and acceptable and expected and respected and stepping towards almost unbelievable dreams? Maybe even like the dreams wrapped up in the promises of Christmas. Dreams of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and eace on earth. Good will towards all. Dreams of Enough for all and a place for all and of our doing our part to help bend that long arc of history in the direction of justice. While others do their best to pretend it is not there or that nothing can be done about it, you and I are to risk standing face to face with the very real darkness of degradation and violence and despair and hatred and dare to dream dreams and to see visions.
Granted, given the world as it is, glimpses of God are sometimes hard to see.
Glimpses of goodness and kindness and compassion and justice are hard to see.
Glimpses of those moments and circumstances where differences are set aside in favor of our shared humanity and glimpses of those places where peace is risked are hard to see. To catch a glimpse of them requires the same attention and the same perseverance and the same dedication that is required of seeing one new star in the midst of the millions that are already there.
But, it is not just seeing, is it?
It is also following.
However we are able.
In whatever way we can.
Following the star which we see.
Following the dream of how the world might be that is planted in our souls.
Following, the best we know how, the way of peace.
Following Jesus into the world which we believe God continues to love so very much.