Today, I’m sharing with you an extract of my retelling of the Story of the Magi – the Wise Men. Today is the day we celebrate their arrival, and their gifts. You can read a previous year’s bog post here – where I write of how so many different people came to know about the birth of Jesus in so many different ways. How attentiveness can lead to the joy of finding a King, a hope, even in the most unpromising circumstances.
Today, I’ve been mulling over the ways we can fail to see. In this story, people fail to see – or see and profoundly miss the point. There is Herod, insecure in all his power and wealth, seeing only a challenge to him personally. Unaware, as they all are, of how this is a different kind of king altogether, he responds with fear, and manipulative cruelty. He knew of the birth, but could not see beyond his own enclosing neediness. His sight turns inward. And then there are the experts in the law. They knew, too, in the sense that they pored over the scrolls and could give and answer to Herod’s questions, but they don’t seem to have done anything good with that knowledge. On the contrary, they share their knowledge with Herod, and so contribute to the terrible sequel to this story. They did not seek out the new Messiah as far as we are told – I wonder why not? Were they so caught up with their own study of the scriptures that they did not step outside to see what new work of God was opening so close by? Were they so caught up in the service of Herod, or at least their influence with him, that they could not see outside the wealth and power of that palace? Were they afraid?
We don’t know. What we can see, throughout the Christmas stories, is how God is at work in places and in people you would not expect. And, if we look to the religious experts, and those in power – Herod and these experts in scripture – we find they are so full of their own power, their own position, they are unable to see this glorious new thing.
But let’s not stay in Herod’s court. Let’s journey in strange and wise company, looking to the star to guide us. Let’s enter the house where the child Jesus and his mother are, and lay what we have before this most extraordinary of kings. Let us open our eyes to the unexpected, and look for God to be at work.
They Followed a Star
Far away from Jerusalem, in a land to the east, wise men looked up at the clear night skies above the desert and saw a star rising. For years they had studied the movements of the stars and planets, and they had never seen anything like this before. They unrolled their charts and plotted its path.
“This means a new king has been born to the Jews!” they said to each other, as they gave hurried orders to their servants to prepare for a journey.
When these strangely dressed foreigners arrived in Jerusalem, they began to ask “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Troubled rumours spread through the city, for there had been no proclamation of any birth.
King Herod the Great’s advisors approached him nervously.
“Your Majesty, strangers from the east have arrived in the city. They are searching for a child who they say has been born King of the Jews. They saw a sign in the heavens!” Herod caught his breath, and turned white with fear. He had been given that title himself by the authority of Rome, building palaces and the great Temple to spread his fame. What kind of king was coming to challenge him?
Then he asked his advisors “Where is the Messiah, the Anointed One, to be born?” The scholars unrolled the scroll of the prophet Micah, and read out loud:
“Bethlehem will no longer be
the least important of the towns.
For from it will come a leader
who will rule my people Israel
like a shepherd-king.”
“Bethlehem, eh?” murmured Herod. He gave orders for the wise men to be invited to the palace. He listened to their tale of the star with keen interest, nodding and smiling as if he were delighted at the news. He told them all about Bethlehem. “Go and find the child, then please send a message so I can join you in your worship. What wonderful times these are!” Herod hid his crooked smile.
As the wise men set off from the cool marble and mosaics of the palace, they looked up at the sky once more. And there was the star, guiding them to Bethlehem. They followed, and found the child with his mother, Mary. She was astonished to receive such guests – who bowed low, and spoke of her son with reverence, and unwrapped precious gifts to lay at their feet.
She unclasped the caskets one by one. The first shone, it was full of gold. The second opened to a rich, sweet smell. “The smell of the Temple,” Mary murmured to herself. It was frankincense, used in worship. The third contained an earthy, dark, resin. It was myrrh, more valuable than gold, used in burials, and for healing. Mary looked up at her visitors, and thanked them for these extraordinary, extravagant gifts as the smell of the incense and the myrrh hung in the air about them.
The wise men did not send word to Herod in Jerusalem, for that night, they were troubled in their dreams about him. They paid attention to the warning, as they had to the star. So they slipped away, avoiding the city, to cross the desert once more.From The Bible Story Retold
The wise men brought you gold:
Let us use our riches to do good.
The wise men brought you frankincense:
Let our prayers rise like smoke to heaven.
The wise men brought you myrrh:
Let us seek to comfort those who are sad and grieving.
Let there be little Christmases
throughout the year,
when unexpected acts of kindness
bring heaven’s light to earth.
What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him –
give my heart.
Christina RosettiFrom Prayers and Verses