Who are these mystical figures really? And why does their story speak to us?
Part of our fascination with them is their deft handling of Herod, the crafty Judean politician, son of an appointee of Julius Caesar. Herod clawed his way to kingship by aligning himself with the Roman occupation, re-conquering his own homeland with Roman aid, and then lending legitimacy to his rule by marrying into the legendary Hasmonean dynasty, whose fame was rooted in the celebrated Jewish Maccabean revolts of centuries past.
Wisdom of the Magi
Readings include Matthew 2:1-12
The visitation of the Magi has always been one of the more fascinating – and memorable – stories of the Christmas season. From my wondering as a child at the seemingly exotic nature of these travelers from the East, to the fabulous annual productions of Amahl and the Night Visitors I had the privilege of seeing while studying music as an undergraduate, there is something about them that captures our imagination. Part of their mystery is their origins: were they Persian priests of Zoroaster, Babylonians, Arabians, or Jewish leaders of the diaspora from contemporary Yemen, or some combination of all of these? Were there three or more? A plethora of traditions arose around and about them. In the Eastern Church, they number at least a dozen in some depictions. Tales of their later martyrdom for Christ spawned relics into the Middle Ages. But Matthew, the only canonical gospel who records their visitation, gives us precious little to go on. The author himself may have had his Jewish audience in mind as the story in some ways parallels the tale of the King Balak and the prophet Balaam in the Torah, complete with a messianic star (cf. Numbers 22-24). That Matthew also intends to show the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles may also, of course, be on the agenda.
But our fascination amounts to much more than that:
Who are these mystical figures really? And why does their story speak to us?
Part of our fascination with them is their deft handling of Herod, the crafty Judean politician, son of an appointee of Julius Caesar. Herod clawed his way to kingship by aligning himself with the Roman occupation, re-conquering his own homeland with Roman aid, and then lending legitimacy to his rule by marrying into the legendary Hasmonean dynasty, whose fame was rooted in the celebrated Jewish Maccabean revolts of centuries past. Herod the Great’s success (his building projects in Judea were more than impressive) was matched only by his ruthlessness (it is during Christmastide that we also remember accounts of his slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem in an effort to protect his throne from the prophesied Messiah.)
But Herod’s carefully crafted and paid-for rule is trembling with fear when word of a new king’s birth is whispered in his ear and these strangers from the East come looking for him. Yet the wise men catch the scent of Herod’s fearful scheming through their wise observation and dreams – they are whole, it seems, in their engagement with the universe and the sacred; holy mystics – rulers perhaps – of a different order than the unholy, violent, divisive and soul-rending political machinations that make up Herod and his ilk. The Magi are sacred watchers of signs in nature and the solitude of sleep; faithful stewards of ancient wisdom buried in the very foundations of history and the human experience – wisdom that speaks of our need for a savior, of God to come among us to restore our wholeness.
Recently, I had the privilege of one of those all-too-rare pastoral conversations with a stranger: a seeker from the wider community. For years she has struggled mightily with memories of a profoundly traumatic childhood: trauma that led almost inevitably to struggles with addiction and the law. She had done so many things right more recently: residential programs, therapy, psychiatric care, engaging recovery groups to address her compensating addiction, grappling with various diagnoses...some wrong, some right...struggling with how medication made things better...and made things worse...She had taken every step you can imagine to find and fight for her healing. But still not a day would go by that she didn’t re-engage with the awful memories of her youth, sometimes triggered unexpectedly by things that would seem to most of us innocuous.
She visited me and wondered aloud through tears simply why she couldn’t get over the traumas of the past. Her prayer life is vibrant, she continually offers thanks to God for every daily blessing, she knows scripture well, she places high expectations on herself to let go of anger and forgive those who harmed her, she struggles faithfully to keep her family together. Why doesn’t God just fix things inside her and punish the guilty as a reward for her fidelity? Why can’t she just be healed so she can be a better help to her family and friends?
It was these questions that were worthy, I realized, of the Christ-child, and the long, uncertain journey of the Magi. That the Magi and Jesus would experience a world that was as brutal in some ways as hers is a given. The Magi had to face Herod. So did the Holy Family. Neither of them fixed the situation politically or saw Herod brought to justice. The Magi simply evade Herod on the way home. The innocents of Bethlehem will be killed. John the Baptist will be beheaded and Jesus will die on the cross in part because of the machinations of one of Herod the Great’s sons and heir. Imagine the very different and somehow more familiar story we would have had the Magi remained with Jesus and conspired with him against Herod. The political messiah everyone, even Herod himself, expected, would be just another dynasty battling for power – perhaps with an Eastern alliance opposed to Herod’s Roman one – the Nazorean political family possibly rising and falling in history, like the Hasmoneans, the Herodians, or the Caesars.
One of our alternate gospels today talk of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt to protect the infant Jesus from Herod’s murderous designs for a time. Exile is an inevitable and un-fixable part of the human condition: one that Jeremiah speaks to again on the Second Sunday after Christmas. And that exile has many forms: political, social, relational, familial, and even that awful internal divorce between our heads and hearts, between our inner private and outer public lives. And then there’s the cross that holds it all up for redemption, which is hinted at to Mary even while her first-born destined to be baptized the Son of God still grows in her womb.
“What if,” I asked this stranger who became no-longer-a-stranger in my office, “your struggle is a struggle we all share? One that Christ shares with you?” Sure, her memories and journey seemed harsher than most, but our our most holy journey in common is the struggle with our woundedness.
“What if Jesus isn’t on the outside waiting to fix things, but in the very midst of your struggle with those traumatic memories, standing with you in those awful moments, sharing those wounds with you?”
I found myself offering advice I was once given by a wise counselor in a broken moment: to remember and suffer is as human as it gets. To struggle with woundedness is not so much a “fixable” reality or one to be gotten over, but one to be lived into faithfully as a journey every bit as important as following the star in the East – our wounds are a reality into which we invite Jesus for redemption, not one we try to fix before we meet him. To struggle with forgiveness itself is a process: not simply a switch we throw in our heads. To weep over difficult memories is simply to weep, a most human and Christian vocation. And then to give thanks is to offer this precious gift of Christ in our midst the very best we have to offer.
And then when we remembered her children, some of whom are now successfully engaging adulthood, she brightened considerably. Despite her own struggles, she had already been a help to them and a loving support in ways she might not even be able to imagine. And then there were those to whom she witnessed every day walking alongside her in recovery. Her ministry in grace had already begun, and had been unfolding for a long time. She didn’t need to wait until she was completely healed or perfect, or even just until tomorrow. The life of Christ had already been unfolding in her. Like the exiles’ return in Jeremiah, her journey home was palpable, ongoing, and will be ultimately joyous even if, like the returning lame and blind, she – like all of us, and even like our beloved Christ – still bears the wounds of this life.
It is this wisdom, perhaps, that the Magi knew as they journeyed great distances, asking questions, following uncertain paths, knowing their own brokenness and limitations and learning and re-learning the brokenness of the world, and yet at long last kneeling and worshiping the Christ-child and offering their greatest gifts in homage. . .
This divinity born vulnerable and human as a child among us, who is birthed into all our wounded places, shares our scars and sorrows and even our death, and yet knits a broken cosmos back together; who is driven into exile himself, and yet invites us on the long journey home from all of our wounding exiles from self, community, and God; who is worshiped by strangers sometimes more faithfully, it seems, than the recognized faithful among us; and who is revealed as the Savior of All as the darkness turns to light and the star ascends in our hearts.
Reprinted from Caught by the Light, The Reverend Richard Helmer's blog and as given Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California, on Sunday, January 5, 2013.