Mindful of recent dramas affecting an online friend, I am careful to say that I owe the opening of this to a friend on the PRCL lists, and some of the core to Trevor Dennis and his wonderful book "The Christmas Stories". The grotty bits in between are mine, though....
Have you ever lain on your back and looked up at the night sky?
Can you find Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and by them the North Star? Do you recognise just where Orion’s belt lies?
We are fortunate to live where the stars can still be seen, on a cloudless night. For many in our cities, light pollution means that the wonders of the night sky exist only in the imagination ... Thanks to the street lights, you can no longer see the stars.
Being able to see is central to today’s gospel as we hear again the story of the travellers who followed a star across the world.
That star is significant, right enough, and we would do well to set our own sights on it…but some other aspects of the story may confuse us.
For starters, how many Kings do we hear about today?
Maybe sounds like a trick question…along the same lines as “Which is heavier…a pound of lead or a pound of feathers?”
It’s the feast of the Epiphany, the crib scenes in our churches are finally complete, and I’m pretty certain that in every church in the land the sound of
“We three Kings…” will be heard
Three Kings, then, obviously…
But actually, our gospel concerns not three kings but two.
The first is obvious, Herod, the reigning monarch. He sits on his throne in the capital city of Jerusalem, able to command, used to being obeyed, ruthless in ordering drastic measures in order to safeguard his kingdom.
Herod is used to taking centre stage, to being in the spotlight…apparently strong - but surprisingly vulnerable, paranoid, a King who wonders how long his reign will last.
He courts attention but in this story, actually, Herod is a distraction…for us, and for the travellers.
You see, just down the road…in an insignificant house, in an insignificant village…there is a new-born baby – the one for whom the star shines…But it’s easy to miss him.
Let’s get back to those three kings,…You know, the ones from the carol…
Well, actually, no.
That’s another distraction, together with all the years of tradition that assigned names and races to the travellers…
The travellers whose arrival we celebrate today are not kings at all, despite the extravagance of their gifts…They are, rather, Magi – astrologers, skilled in reading the stars, in predicting the fall of rulers and empires or the birth of great men…
In the ancient world they got a decidedly mixed press –just as astrologers do today. Some dismissed them as charlatans, while others relied on their wisdom, gave them access to the corridors of power, hung on their every pronouncement.
Perhaps this is why Herod took them so seriously when they arrived unlooked for at his door. This was a time when people spoke of a star brightening when someone was born and dimming when they died, when the heavens were expected to reflect the events on earth …so magi talking of a special star would have a ready audience.
Magi knew things.
Indeed they did, these men from the east, from beyond the borders of the civilised world. Theirs is vision that, significantly, is not granted to anyone within Israel. There are wise men in the royal household, for Herod consults them. There are neighbours living in the little town of Bethlehem but all of these people miss the wonder on their doorstep, and so it is the strangers from far away whom Matthew brings first to worship Jesus.
They may have been distracted en route, as people often are…they may have opted, at first, for the obvious answers- after all, if you were looking for a King, would you not head first for the royal palace?
They may have put others at risk, with terrible results…and only barely escaped with their own lives …And yet, these travellers are men of vision.
Amid all countless stars of the firmament, they have identified one star in particular, one pinpoint of light among so very many, and have managed to track it to its resting place, where they are brought to their knees by the wonder before them
…God with us, lying helpless as a baby in his mother’s arms.
There in that house they find the kingdom of heaven, so different from the kingdom of Herod that the gifts the travellers have carried laboriously over the miles seem, for the moment, out of place, though when the child grows up it seems he can make use of them.
But this story is one of continual readjustment…of vision clouded and then cleared…
It is, perhaps, remarkable that the travellers managed to see past their own expectations…of royal pomp and power to recognise and rejoice in heaven in ordinary, a baby boy snuggling with his mother.
Perhaps that’s the greatest gift in this story of many gifts, that God gave them the grace to get past their expectations and truly see the Messiah.
Here we begin another year, and another decade.
We’ve all travelled a fair distance, and the journey isn’t done yet.
It’s easy for us, too, to be distracted from the purpose of our journey, to be lured by the bright lights of Herod’s palace, where power and politics carry the day…
We may doubt that we have anything worth bringing to that baby…
And indeed the best that we can offer will only be of value as an expression of our love…because however hard we try to match the gift to the recipient, there’s NOTHING that God needs…except our love….and whatever we bring, God will recognise the love that lies behind it. In actuality, of course, the only way that we can show that love from day to day is by allowing it free play in all our relationships so that we come with our gifts to places and to people every bit as unexpected as that child in the back street of Bethlehem.
Of course, we may be disappointed that he doesn’t command attention, doesn’t storm the citadels of the world and transform it instantly. Sometimes, that disappointment will discourage us from travelling on…The journey is not in any way easy – but our ultimate safety is assured.
But, whether we travel with confidence or with uncertainty
Whether we keep our eyes fixed on the star or are diverted at every turn
When we arrive, we will surely be made welcome and will know that we’ve come to the place where we truly belong