Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem. “Where is the infant king of the Jews?”, they asked. We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2, 1-12
My own exploration into children’s literature has taught me that all stories are true, and that some actually happened. We human beings love to hear and tell stories. In fact, much of our daily conversation is taken up with storytelling that is coloured with our own embellishments and perceptions. In today’s gospel, we hear the story of the “three wise men” who came in search of the new-born Jesus. It occurs only in Matthew’s Gospel, and whether or not it is based on an actual event, it’s a story that Matthew used to tell all his readers something about themselves. So, it’s a story about us.
Over centuries, Matthew’s three travellers from the east have been presented in exotic dress and have had unusual names attributed to them – Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior, simply because they caught the imagination of people from one generation to the next. They are unlike most of us in culture and origin. They are very much like us in their human experience. Dissatisfied with their horoscopes and whatever other apparatus they used, these three astrologers (“some men who studied the stars”, Matthew 2, 1) set out to follow a star to something or somebody they hoped would satisfy their searching. They discovered the Christ child after a long and difficult search.
Isn’t this a search which we all must take? In Luke’s Gospel we read how the shepherds, discards of society, went to Bethlehem in search of a child they were told by angels they would find in a manger. In Matthew, we read how the educated and wealthy, the Magi, set out on a long and arduous search not knowing what they would find. The implication is that we, too, need to go in search of the only one who will ever satisfy us.
To emphasise his point, Matthew presents us with another set of wisdom figures in the persons of “the chief priests and teachers of the Law” (Matthew 2, 4). The arrival in Jerusalem of distinguished strangers from the east was news that was significant enough to be brought to the attention of King Herod, who, in turn, sought the wisdom of the Jewish religious leaders, asking them: “Where will the Messiah be born?” (Matthew 2, 4). While they had the answer, for they quoted to Herod the prophet Micah 5, 2: “The Lord says: ‘Bethlehem, Ephrathah, you are one of the smallest towns in Judah, but out of you I will bring a ruler for Israel, whose family line goes back to ancient times’”, they were no more interested in looking for a Messiah in Bethlehem than they were in flying to the moon. There was no connection between their heads and their hearts. Moreover, they were so full of their own importance that they were not able to take the risk of lowering themselves to go to Bethlehem to confirm what one of the prophets in their own tradition had pointed to. Had they taken that risk, they would have had to ignore what they found or make changes to the way they lived and the message they proclaimed. In contrast, the Magi took the double risk of long and dangerous journeying and the possibility of having to accept the consequences of life-changing discovery that inquiry sometimes demands.
Therein lies the challenge of today’s gospel reading. It pushes us to choose between two kinds of wisdom figures - those who hold onto the safety and comfort of certainty and those who risk journeying into the unknown in search of truth that might unsettle.
To which set of wise men do I choose to listen?
There is still more about this story of the Magi to which we can give our attention. Their arrival in Jerusalem caused something of a stir. They were different because of the way they dressed. They attracted the attention of the local people because they were strangers and outsiders.
Matthew’s story invites us to reflect on the way we treat outsiders. Do we keep such people at a distance because we believe they have no right to trespass into our space, to look for acceptance in our land? Do we ever acknowledge that they might bring different and better ways of living that put us to shame? Many of the outsiders who turn up on the borders of our country have been forced to flee from war, violence, and threats to their right to live in peace and freedom. Yet we can reject them as though they are nothing more than human waste. We can treat them as objects of fear rather than take the risk of treating them as our sisters and brothers in need of welcome.
While the people of Bethlehem looked at the newly-arrived Magi with curiosity, suspicion or fear born of prejudice, King Herod in Jerusalem was threatened by the news they brought. The very thought of the birth of a child who might one day challenge his position and power was enough to send him into a bloodthirsty rage. The plan Herod proceeded to put into place only demonstrates how we can let fear cripple our ability to think straight. To be afraid of a helpless child merely highlights the depth of Herod’s irrationality. His actions give me cause to reflect on the extent I allow fear to push aside my faith and hope in God.
Finally, the Magi were searchers for truth and further wisdom. Some commentators on Matthew’s Gospel suggest they were Zoroastrians, members of a religious group that originated in Persia. Zoroaster was a prophet who lived about six hundred years before Christ. Zoroastrianism is still flourishing in India, especially around Mumbai. The world-renowned, classical music conductor, Zubin Mehta, is a Zoroastrian. He founded the Mumbai Symphony Orchestra, has been musical director of the Montreal Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic orchestras and has been sought after to conduct in the great opera houses of the world. He is currently conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Zoroastrians as known for their intellectual and artistic pursuits and their generous outreach to the poor and disadvantaged. They believe that all good people are born under a light in heaven to guide them and that light appears as a star. The brighter the star, the more important is the person born under it. Matthew’s Magi, on their arrival in Jerusalem state the reason for their coming and what it was that guided them: “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2, 2)
We can identify with the Magi because we, like them, are searchers. We don’t have all the answers. We have questions about our faith and about the big issues in life like sickness, war, natural disasters, recession and death. We are terrified by modern-day, power-hungry Herods. We wonder how a loving God can seemingly allow evil and hatred to flourish. Yet we can take comfort from the example of the Magi who did not search alone, but found support in one another. We too find support and encouragement in the people who join us in our churches and communities week in and week out. With them, we listen, pray and search, and from them we get encouragement and comfort. Like them, we have the light of Christ to guide us. Just as the Magi finally found the one for whom they were searching, so, too, will we.