The story of the visit of the Magi has the ring of a folk tale, as is obvious by how the narrative threads begin to unravel when subject to the questions one might ask about a “real life” situation.
There is the matter of the encounter between the Magi and Herod, and the larger questions this encounter provokes concerning human agency and knowing, the brutality of political tyrants, and the workings of divine providence. How could the magi be so naïve as to press the king of a country for details about a future king of a different lineage coming to power, without any thought to the jealousy and violence such an inquiry might unleash? Remember that the inquiry of the magi is the prompt that eventually results in Herod’s decree to slaughter the innocent children of Bethlehem. After the magi visit the Holy Family, they are warned “in a dream” not to return to Herod. But why couldn’t they have received information about how to find the child through such a dream in the first place, which would have enabled them to avoid Herod altogether, thus giving him no cause to issue his murderous decree?
There is the matter of how the story lumps “all Jerusalem” with King Herod (Matthew 2:3), as if all citizens of this city were Herod’s allies, fully in support of his tyrannical reign. We know from historical sources that many Jews resented and resisted Herod’s alliance with the Roman Caesar, including many Jerusalemites. Surely some of the people of Jerusalem would have been hopeful, rather than frightened, by the appearance of the magi, longing as they were for a different political configuration in the holy city. Always be cautious when you are told that an entire people is of one mind — for in such instances you are most often in the realm of a simplifying stereotype.
There is the matter of the star — “his star.” How can the star arise in apparently so vague a way that at first the magi need to ask directions on how to find the child to whom the star belongs, but whose guidance eventually becomes so specifically focused that it is said to rest over only one house, the house in which the child lies. It is as if the star becomes in the end a laser beam. And this is to say nothing about why Matthew, a good Jewish author, steeped in Jewish piety and scriptures, turns astrologers into heroes. The magi are practitioners of what might be regarded as “pagan religion.” Their beliefs would have been dismissed as superstitious, if not evil, by most Jews of the day, in the way that such beliefs concerning the role of stars in human fate eventually come to be dismissed by orthodox Christians.
And yet, even if the story does not ring “true” by a certain set of historical criteria, it does lead us into reflection on very profound truths concerning our own experiences of the working of the world and of God in the world. Anyone who follows world events is no stranger to the phenomenon of political tyrants, who live in perpetual fear of losing power, and who think nothing of subjecting their own people to the cruelest exercise of that power. If we are honest with ourselves, we may recognize that we, like the magi, may engage in actions that ultimately work in the service of tyrannical power, even if we are sometimes too naïve to recognize how our behaviors and decisions fuel that power. We may remember times in our own lives that we were keenly aware of the workings of divine providence — we might have experienced our own version of the dream of the magi — the word from God that kept us or our loved ones out of harm’s way. But we also know that harm is not always providentially avoided. Our Christian faith is deeply rooted in our scriptures, our doctrine and our traditions, but sometimes we are also guided by something more — something else — the light of a star that comes not from our familiar religious practice, but a light that still leads us onward.
Perhaps then our journeys are not so different from those of the magi, with their turns sometimes into safety, sometimes into precarious territory. Sometimes we may be needing to ask for directions, sometimes divine guidance may be so obvious that we could not miss our destination. If ever in our lives our long journeys do lead us precisely to the place we have been seeking — to the place where we see the Christ, may we like them also rejoice, becoming overwhelmed with our joy.
Extravagant God, you sent magi with generous gifts to visit the baby Jesus and proclaim his reign to all the world. Make our voices heard when we proclaim God’s love to all. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
We three kings trad. Brightest and best of the stars ELW 303 The first noel ELW 300
The three kings, Healey Willan