Sunday, January 5, 2014


Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew tells us that “magi from the east,”
who came seeking a newborn king,
“prostrated themselves and did him honor.”
But sometimes I wonder:
before bowing down and worshiping the Christ child,
do you think they were secretly disappointed,
even if only for a moment?
Do you think that, arriving in Bethlehem
at the end of a long and difficult journey,
and seeing the unimpressive dwelling
of the unimpressive parents
of this unimpressive child
the magi might have thought,
“we came all that way for this?”
After all, an astronomical event
spectacular enough to be visible in in a distant land
sets up a pretty high set of expectations.
Did the magi, not unreasonably,
expect a palace with a treasury
that could receive their gifts
of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
Did they perhaps confer discretely among themselves
as to whether they should find some alternative gifts
that would be more suitable for these simple folk
and keep the fancy stuff in reserve,
just in case another star appeared,
heralding another king,
perhaps a more normal sort king?
Did they perhaps even find themselves thinking that King Herod,
who, though ruthless, was quite effective at wielding power,
seemed a bit more of a king than a squalling baby
and his shabby parents.

Matthew doesn’t tell us of the magi
having this disappointment,
and maybe I’m simply projecting,
but if they did doubt, who could blame them?
Surely what the world needed was a ruler
who could take on petty tyrants like Herod,
not to mention major tyrants like the Roman Emperor.
And just as surely
there was nothing that they found in Bethlehem
that gave any indication
that such a ruler was to be found there.
No palace, no treasury, no obvious royal lineage.
Just a poor baby of poor parents,
and a star, and a prophecy:
you, Bethlehem, land of Judah…
from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.

Matthew says nothing
of the disappointment and doubts of the magi;
what he does tell us is that,
“they prostrated themselves and did him homage.”
He does tell us that, “they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
If at first they felt that their expectations had not been met,
something seems to have changed.
The word “epiphany,” which is the name of this feast,
means a “manifestation” – literally a shining-forth of light.
At the end of a long journey
that ended at an unexpected destination
the magi seem to have found new eyes
to see the divine light that shone,
not from a star in the heavens,
but from a child cradled in his mother's arms.
They found new ears to hear the voice of God,
no longer in ancient prophecies,
but in the cries of a wordless infant.

One detail of Matthew’s telling of this story
that has always struck me
is his statement that the magi
“departed for their country by another way.”
Of course the reason that they did this
was in order to avoid having to go back to Herod
and tell him where the infant Jesus was.
But perhaps Matthew is also telling us
that the magi were changed by their encounter with Jesus.
Their prior expectations overturned,
the long journey back was a quite different one
from the long journey out
because everything was seen with new eyes,
everything was heard with new ears,
and they now journeyed through a world redeemed by love
shining forth from a powerless child.

After the journey of Advent and our arrival at Christmas,
we too may feel a sense of disappointment and even doubt.
Perhaps we too have not found the savior whom we sought,
the savior who would bring us
peace or healing or reconciliation.
Perhaps we, like the magi, brought to Bethlehem
a set of expectations that have not been met.
But the God whom the magi found in Bethlehem
is clearly not a God whose top priority
is meeting our expectations,
but a God of surprising grace.
And we too, like the magi,
can have our expectations transformed
by the grace of the Christ child;
we too can return home by a different way,
having new eyes with which to see,
and new ears with which to hear.
Let us pray that we will find
true peace and healing and reconciliation
in the new world that awaits us as we continue our journey.