Preacher The 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, on the other hand, try to discover scientifically what happened in the skies at that time. 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 them towards a humble hamlet called Bethlehem: these remain in our consciousness, because stories hold great appeal 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, 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, all suggest that this is a season for children – or, 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 messiness and complexity of the real world, it is not to be taken too seriously. Children and those of a pure heart may apply, but all others, please replace the handset and dial another number. To which all I can say is: thank God for Epiphany.
Today, we move beyond the endearing shepherds, the baa-lambs, the pure, holy mother and the silent and supportive father. Epiphany is when the wise men get involved: the studious astrologers searching for meaning, the ones who have a difficult journey, the people who arrive late. Some scholars suggest they finally get there some two years after the birth, and they bring trouble as well as fine gifts with them. 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 we manage so often to make things worse – or if not us personally, certainly our society and our world, for the innocent are still 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 searching for meaning are so meandering and long, aren’t they? Not many of us have Damascus Road experiences or blinding lights. Not all that 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; we’ve taken one step forward and two or three back; we’ve made endless false starts and taken many wrong turnings. We, too, are late arriving in Bethlehem, not blessed with the apparent simplicity of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the sheep and the cattle.
And yet – here is the miracle – here is why today is such a celebration, because, despite all of that, the wise men are welcome. You might expect that a faith which begins in such apparent simplicities – the baby, the animals, the shepherds who ran barefoot across the fields to see this thing that had come to pass – would have no place for the wandering and very late Magi. But no, they came – eventually – and they were not turned away. They, too, found their place in this great story. The gifts they carried could only be brought by the well-to-do, and later Christian interpretation loaded them with significance – gold as a symbol of wisdom and wealth, incense to represent worship and sacrifice, and myrrh as a symbol of healing and preparation 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 stable, there was room even for them. In many ways, the wise men are our patrons, and we can be helped by their story. They know what it is like coming to Jesus by a roundabout route, with many wrong turnings and cul-de-sacs.
Yes, 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 kings. Today some even more recent arrivals reach Bethlehem: us. The wise men did not leave their past, or their full range of human 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 intelligence, their strange gifts and their complex histories – and found they were welcome. Likewise, we are not required to park our brains, our failures, or the experiences that have made us the people we are at the church door. We, too, through the unending love and mercy that brings divinity into our humanity, are welcomed in the Bethlehem stable.
Matthew tells us the Magi departed for their own country by another way. Well, yes. After the encounter with Jesus, how could they – how could we – possibly go back by the old route?