Matthew 2: 1-12
The feast of Epiphany always comes at the right time because we’re finally far enough away from all the expectations that surround Christmas Day itself. We are given an opportunity to step back as the world has moved on, to look more closely at what the season is truly about and it comes in the form of a timeless story of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s another one of the Christmas stories that has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and even misinterpreted over the years and has managed to maintain a place in the celebration of the season. Of course, over time they’ve become kings even though there is no mention of kings in the story. They are, though, the archetypal seekers that Israel would be most familiar, a people that understands the significance of wandering and seeking a given promise.
Here’s the thing about these Magi, though. They were the experts of their day in reading the stars and understanding the heavens. They were people who in some sense were other-worldly and connected to the cosmic levels of the universe. They knew that there was significance in this particular star, that a new king had been born, quite possibly the one that has been long awaited and attached to the very promise that Israel clung to over the centuries. Yet, despite all of that, the magi, these heavenly experts, got it wrong. They got it wrong and show up at the wrong location. Granted, it’s pretty close but it’s still not Bethlehem where the fulfillment of the promise is rooted.
Like the Magi and their own journey towards love, it’s often their greatest gift that becomes their obstacle to love. All the expertise in the world and even their knowledge that extended beyond the realms of this world didn’t seem to land them where they most desired, their deepest search for love in the newborn King. The journey, though, doesn’t disappoint them, mindful of Israel’s own journey through the desert, it’s often on the cusp of that moment of crossing over that a final test is introduced. Do they really desire this gift of love incarnate? The final test of the magi is getting over themselves and letting go of even their greatest attribute, their knowledge of the stars, in their confrontation with Herod, the lord of their day. It was the most obvious of places to find themselves in seeking a king. You go to the seat of power. Yet in the process of this encounter with fear, the insecurity of worldly power is exposed and their own holding on begins to slip through their fingers and an opening for love begins to change the Magi from within. It wasn’t simply the birth of Jesus, it was the birth of the kingly power in their own lives, magi with kingly power now being led by love. Love leads them to Bethlehem not simply to pay homage to the newborn King but to become the very love in which they gaze. The magi will have no other choice but to go home by a different route because now their lives are moved forward not by expertise and knowledge of the heavenly realms, but by love. They tap into the greatest of powers and when it meets love in the Christ, their lives are changed forever.
Their stop in Jerusalem can appear as a mistake or simply as a necessary stop on the journey in seeking love, seeking out this newborn King. The path to Bethlehem always comes through Jerusalem just as the path to Jerusalem is through Bethlehem. The challenge for us, as it was the magi, is our own discernment in Jerusalem and not overstay our welcome. We have a tendency in our lives to take up shelter in Jerusalem and setting for something other than what gives us live and manifests that love in our lives. It’s much easier to cling and attach ourselves to our own “expertise”, whatever that may be. It gives us a sense of certainty that we can hold onto in the uncertainties of our time. It, however, often leads to further chaos and becoming trapped in the darkness and mistaking it for the light. Who knows whether the magi knew for sure in their encounter with Herod but the one definite of the story is that when they do finally encounter love and love their navigational tool, they know they are not to return the same way. We can’t go back to through the womb just as much as we can’t through the tomb. They are simply passage ways, albeit it painful passages at times, but they are the path to love and in us sharing in love and becoming that love in our lives. It is the deepest desire and what we long for the most in life if we can just allow ourselves to get out of our own way and surrender even our greatest gift that we believe defines us to love.
As we enter this final week of the Christmas season, culminating with the Baptism of the Lord next Sunday, what is it we’re seeking in our lives these days? Are we like the Magi as they enter into Jerusalem, holding onto our own wherewithal, thinking we know the way, mapping out the destination only to come up short? What is our Jerusalem that we’re being housed in? It is the most difficult of the journey until it no longer is, until you begin to catch glimpses of the more you desire, you seek. It is only love that can pull us outside ourselves and yet move us to the deepest places within ourselves, navigating us through the ups and downs of life. The magi have become timeless because they are so symbolic of our own lives and our spiritual journey. If we continue to go home by the same route, more often than not we’re clinging and have a sense of being closed off from love, resisting a change of heart. God finds a way, though, even with the magi. Even in the face of the horrors and insecurities of Herod, love begins to break through for the Magi. The desire for change and for more was already there. In the moment of finally surrendering even the greatest parts of themselves, they realize there’s more and the burning love of the heart will now become the deciding factor. It’s what we desire and it’s what we seek in our own lives, to love, to be loved, and most certainly, in that very encounter as we do at this altar, to become love and to be changed forever.