Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12
We come to the final Sunday of the Christmas season and it gets bookended with Matthew’s version of the birth of Christ with the visit of the Magi and the star guiding their way. Of course, even here we lump them all together to create our very own Charlie Brown Christmas but certainly not the intention of either Matthew or Luke, each having their own reasons as to why the story is told. I’ve said before that Matthew is very much about change and an interior change that is necessary to be a follower and so there’s very little need to historical evidence of these events but very much when it comes to our spiritual life.
It is the rising of the stars appearance that sets these Magi on this journey to Bethlehem. Many over the years have tried to give historical evidence even of the star, whether it’s a comet or something, but again, not Matthew’s point. If we want evidence, facts, or certainty we’ve come to the wrong place. It was common belief that everyone was given a star by these astrologers upon their birth into this world. Yet something had to be different about this one that would set the astrologers on such an arduous journey themselves. It’s rising must have set off an unrest within them that would send them seeking and now stand as the archetypal images of seeking of the more. Not the more the world tries to offer but the seeking of the Christ that forces us to our knees in homage. So they set out in search of the rising star. A star that stands as a guiding principle, a seat of wisdom, of sorts that lies deep within them and yet still unknown.
There is another word we use often in our language that has star at its root. The word we use is disaster, dis-star, meaning separated from one’s internal guide. We even speak of our lives or such as a disaster when we feel out of sorts or feeling lost and confused. Which leads us to the first stop of the Magi, Jerusalem, where they encounter disaster first hand in Herod. Herod considers himself the center of the world and yet is filled with fear and paranoia when he hears of this rising star coming to the world stage. Not only Herod, but all of Jerusalem with him, Matthew tells us. Now certainly they knew what Herod was capable of and would see first hand his destruction and just how much of a disaster he was. This rising star, not only a threat to Herod’s perceived power but very much to the status quo. Even though this peace was rooted in fear it’s what they knew and what they could cling to. They were certain of at least that.
The Magi quickly learn that Jerusalem in not the place of the Christ. It’s going to be an opportunity for these journeymen to let go of their own perceived idea of the power they sought was not going to come from worldly position. The most obvious place was the palace in Jerusalem and yet all they find there in the midst of wealth and status was fear, jealousy, secrets, and a guy who was most consumed by himself and the power he acquired through position than in seeking. Herod himself stands as an archetype of the non-seeker, believing that authority comes from him and external authority. He thinks it’s enough to send the Magi further to do the work for him. Yet, as a writer who calls for interior change, Matthew understands that the work is done by ourselves. We must make the journey ourselves while passing through the doors of death in Jerusalem, just as Jesus does as well. Matthew mirrors Jesus’ own journey by passing through Jerusalem in order to experience the fullness of life that is promised.
This all leads to the second journey, the journey into Bethlehem. Notice that it appears in the writing of the gospel that the star seems to dissipate over Jerusalem and reappears as they begin the second journey. Now having been stripped of their own expectations, the Magi open themselves and create the space within themselves to encounter the divine. When they find their true home, not in some palace, but in the poverty of Bethlehem, everything begins to make sense. They recognize that what they have sought they had all along and simply cast a shadow upon Herod and the status quo. It was simply revealed to them who Herod really was and the emptiness of his supposed power, holding people hostage in fear and settling for the status quo.
Mary and Joseph, in Matthew’s gospel are not exempt from making a similar journey. They too will follow and be led by the rising star into Egypt. They, and all of Israel, are invited to face their own history. Egypt stood for everything Herod was, despite being a religious leader. Egypt was the place of slavery, war, and fear for Israel. Matthew calls them collectively to take this journey that the Magi do to shed light and to cast a shadow on where it is that they need to change and where they still cling to fear. Like the infant passing through, the Magi passing through Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph passing through Egypt, and ultimately Jesus passing through Jerusalem, there’s no way around. The journey to a fuller and free life is through our own Jerusalem.
The journey Matthew calls us to and the encounter with the Christ is a difficult one and arduous at best. It’s long and it takes us to places we’d often rather not go. No one wants to admit that we at times clamor for power, fear and are anxious, content with the status quo, want proof and certainty, and yet, everything about this feast and season tells us just the opposite of who we have been created to be. Like Herod, no one else can do it for us. Heck, we’re even content with living a disastrous life and settling for it in our Church, city, nation, and world. It’s what we know and can be sure of, but lacks meaning and purpose and certainly shows how separated we’ve become from our own center. Our faith and what we celebrate in this season points to freedom and liberation, more often than not, from ourselves. Letting go of our own expectations, being led to the belly of the beast, and yet pushed even further to encounter what is real. And in a moment, in a simple encounter, everything makes sense. The Magi could not go home by the same route just as we cannot when we have this encounter with the Christ. In that encounter the Magi see, for the first time, the real presence, and finally understand that the Christ has been with them all along this journey, when the divine of within encounters the divine beyond.
As we enter into the fullness of this season and begin to tell the story of how this gift is manifested, we pray for the grace to make the journey. No one can do it for you and no one can tell you how to get there. Everyone knows their Jerusalem and their Egypt that they need to encounter. Slowly, the eternal Christ within begins to reveal what is real and the deeper truth of our own lives. It takes courage and great grace. But like the Magi, in our own unsettledness, we’re pushed forward and through so that we to can live the fullness of life. Matthew desired something more from and for his community after witnessing the horrors of the world. Our desire is the same. The Magi point the way into our own Bethlehem, into the vulnerability of a heart that throbs and overflows with union. When we allow ourselves the opportunity to make the journey we become transformed, liberated from a past that holds us back and clouds our vision in order to be led to a deeper understanding of this mystery that lead us to simply do as the Magi, to fall on our knees in homage recognizing that it was never about us but the Christ that calls us forth to new life.