Preacher Revd Neil Summers
The star of Bethlehem has long fascinated the curious, and the wise men from the east have inspired poets, composers and artists across the centuries. Only Matthew, among the four Gospel writers, tells the story of the star followed by the mysterious Magi. It doesn’t really matter that modern day wise men – or women – might try to explain it away, or that those who take a literal approach to the story try to discover exactly what happened in the astronomical realm. For the wonder – yes, even the magic – of the story remains undiminished. From our earliest days in church or in the school Nativity, the Eastern kings, dressed in richly-coloured robes, the camels moving ponderously over long stretches of sand, the brightly-shining star, with its long, glowing tail, leading to a humble hamlet called Bethlehem: these remain in our consciousness, because stories carry great significance for adults as well as for children.
It is often remarked that Christmas is a time for children, and I dare say many of us, as adults, have a tendency to recall childhood Christmases whenever the festival comes around: I know I do. Of course, ‘Away in a Manger’, the snowy scenes, the baby in the crib, the animals standing by, suggest this is a season for children – well, if not just children, then certainly the simple-hearted and innocent. All of which is fine so far as it goes, but where does that leave those of us who are not particularly simple-hearted or innocent? What does the Christmas story have to say to us? Because there is a suspicion, isn’t there, that Christianity demands an embarrassed attempt at simplicity and, therefore, for those living in the untidiness and complexity of the real world, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But that, I think, is why we owe a great debt of gratitude to Epiphany, because today, we move beyond the endearing shepherds, the animals in the stable, the pure, holy mother and the silent, supportive father. Epiphany is when the wise men get involved: the studious astrologers searching for meaning, the ones who have a difficult journey, the men who arrive late. Some scholars suggest they finally get there some two years after the birth, and they bring trouble with them, as well as fine gifts. With the benefit of hindsight – always a wonderful thing! – their biggest single mistake was to call in on King Herod, thus – albeit inadvertently – causing the massacre of innocent children. Surely this is the feast which suits so well our 21st century world, for it doesn’t need much of an effort of imagination to bring all this right up to date. For all our supposed sophistication and complexity, we manage so often to make things worse –sometimes personally, and certainly our society and our world, with their endless strategies and systems of communication, power and resourcefulness, intelligence and surveillance. Yet still the innocent are killed, day in, day out. And, like the wise men, we are often Johnny-come-latelys. I don’t mean merely that we’re not punctual, but rather that our journeys of faith are so meandering and long, aren’t they? Not many of us have Damascus Road experiences or blinding lights. Not many of us are cradle Christians, or if we were, we stopped being shortly after we left the cradle. We may have lapsed and wandered off; taken one step forward and two or three back; made endless false starts and taken many wrong turnings. We, too, are late for the crib, not blessed with the simplicity of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the animals.
And yet here is why today is such a celebration, because, after all that, the wise men are welcome. You might expect that a faith which begins in such blinding simplicities – a baby, the ox and ass, the shepherds who ran barefoot across the fields, would have no place for the Magi, the intellectuals of their day. But no, they came and they were not turned away. They, too, found a place before the manger. The gifts they carried could only be brought by the well-to-do and, as we know, later Christian interpretation loaded them with significance – gold as a symbol of a king’s wisdom and wealth, incense for a priest, and to represent worship and sacrifice, and myrrh as a symbol of healing, but also an ominous symbol of the preparation of a body for burial. The child who had been born was going to challenge and set aright the way in which the world handled all three, and the wise men’s gifts were accepted and carefully put by. In the new order of love which had just come to life in the crib, there was room even for them.
In many ways, the wise men are our patrons, and we can be helped by their stories and by their prayers. They know what it is like coming to Christ by a roundabout route, with many dead-ends and wrong turnings. And they know that no matter how laden down we are, how guilty we may feel about our past and the mistakes we have made, how weak our will to love and hope and have faith may be, we are still welcome.
Yes, on one level, perhaps Christmas is easier for the innocent and the child-like, because they have fewer deceptions to shed, and fewer ways of holding God at arms’ length, something that many of us have a lifetime’s experience of doing. But that does not matter now that the new kind of love has been born. For today, there is space not only for the holy family and the shepherds and animals, and the Magi. Today some new faces have arrived in Bethlehem: ours. The wise men did not leave their full range of human knowledge and experience at the stable door. They took it right to the crib and knelt before the child. In spite of their status, they did not pretend to be something they were not. Nor did they forget the long, hard journey they had made, during which they had grown older and probably yet more cynical about the world. They came, eventually, with their strange gifts and their complex pasts – and they were welcomed. And so are we. Then, Matthew tells us, they departed for their own country by another way. Well, yes. After the encounter with Jesus, how could they – how could we – possibly go back to the old route?