First, Isaiah 60:1-6. The prophet goes was deeper than “So rise and shine and give God the glory, glory.” In his eschatological vision, it’s not sunny optimism, or fun in worship. It’s standing, rising, as a people from the dead, as the downtrodden about to receive extraordinary news. And they shine, not because their faces are pretty, but reflecting the glory that is God’s alone, like Moses did in Exodus 34. I love Oscar Romero’s words – which I might cite in my sermon, but then I might use them as my benediction at the end of the service: “When we leave Mass, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong to face the world’s difficulties.”
Classic, this text’s playing on the image of light in the darkness, frequent in the Old Testament, and anticipating the New, especially John’s theological slant on the coming of Christ (“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”). I wonder about going out into the dark one night, or maybe in my basement where it’s really dark, chilling in the dark for a while, then turning on a flashlight or lighting a candle – and noticing what it’s like, what I feel, what I think, what I envision darkness and light are like for others in my parish and in the broader world. Try this and see what dawns on you. Pun intended…
Isaiah 60’s eschatological vision involves a great gathering, not some solo, you get into heaven affair. Nations, kings gather – and they’re still coming. I want to create the feel of the dramatic ending to “Field of Dreams.” No need to get corny – but why is that movie so moving? What does it touch inside even hard-crusted cynics?
The prophet dreams of a day when wealth will pour into Israel. This isn’t prosperity Gospel. Israel, ridiculously impoverished, their hard earned cash having flowed out of Israel for decades, will receive the wealth. And not so they can be rich. So they can have enough, yes – and so the needy and disenfranchised of the world will have enough, yes – but also for the same reason the Egyptians gave the Israelites their jewelry before they took off on the Exodus: the stream of gold is for God, for God’s temple, for the proper worship of God.
That focal point of the life of the world will then be fully about people, all people, gathering for worship, praise, love and fulfillment. John August Swanson’s great painting, “Festival of Lights,” is lovely and evokes the hope of Isaiah 60.
As a footnote: Isaiah adds camels to his scenario, highlighting God’s lordship over all creation, and providing an exotic touch – not to mention one of survival in a parched wilderness. That these camels come toting gold and frankincense isn’t a prediction of a manger scene 500 years in the future. Fascinating, the way this text shaped the way we think of the magi (featured in our Gospel lection). Notice the myrrh isn’t mentioned here. The notion of suffering being the centerpiece of the dawning of God’s kingdom was the one real surprise in the way God wrought redemption through Jesus.
Matthew 2:1-12. On the heels of the Christmas story, there’s no eluding Herod, the nastiest of all nasty kings. He would die soon: on his deathbed, he ordered the elite of the city to come to the hippodrome, had the gates locked behind them, and ordered that they be executed to guarantee an outpouring of grief when he himself died. The magi were lucky to get away after riskily saying to his face “Where is the king of the Jews? We have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).
Sometimes Bible readers get mixed up about which Herod was which. Herod the Great ruled when Jesus was born. But it was Herod Antipas, his son, who reigned when Jesus was crucified. There also was Herod Archaelaus, Herod Philip, and not one but two Herod Agrippas in the Bible! But really, Herod, Herod and Herod are the same guy. All were egotistical, insecure petty potentates, in bed with the Romans, and clueless about God.
“We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar.” At the very thought of them, I barely stifle a chuckle. My mind rushes to the hilarious scene in the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, where the magi mistakenly show up at the wrong house, and then to John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Owen never liked “We Three Kings,” especially with its gory fourth stanza (“sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying”): “Doesn’t sound very Christmasy to me.”
Then there are the pageants we’ve all sat through. Three dads pressed into duty, wearing bathrobes and cardboard crowns you assume were giveaways at Burger King, squinting a little, gazing slightly upwards, nodding, trying to look wise and regal processing to the manger. I witnessed one pageant where the narrator reached the moment in the story when “they fell down and worshipped him” – and one of the magi slipped and fell flat on his face, his fake gold coins clattering across the floor.
Matthew tells us they came “from the east,” perhaps Persia or Arabia or the Syrian desert. The Bible does not tell us they were wise (as in “Wise men still seek him”). Traipsing off after a star seems rather foolish – and I can only hope to be yet one more fool traipsing off after the Light of the world. They certainly were not kings, although all the mighty kings chronicled through history will one day bow down to this King of Kings.
They were magi, astrologers. There you have it: bawdy, theologically kooky humor at the very beginning of Jesus’ story! A Libra, a Pisces and a Taurus, gazing at their star charts, found Jesus, while Herod’s Bible scholars missed the Messiah entirely! How sobering: how many times I too have flipped through the Bible, holding truth in my hands, yet still missing the living Lord. I know quite a few Bible things – but am I personally acquainted with the real Jesus? Dante spoke of “the love that moves the stars.” How determined is God to be found? There are no measures God won’t try, even tomfoolery, to reach people.
What did they see? A supernova? Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction about that time; Halley’s comet passed not long before. Medieval writers believed the Magi saw a bright angel, which they mistook for a star. “The First Noel” seems to think the star was so bright it was visible even by day: “It gave great light, and so it continued both day and night.” I love the Italian film by Pasolini depicting the Magi showing up in Bethlehem (view here, at the 8:25 mark – 4 minutes well-spent, trust me!). They smile, take the baby in their arms, lift him up, laugh. They greet him as you would any newborn child.
During December I slip most easily into the roles the magi played. I bear gifts. I traverse afar. The magi popped in with their gifts, then departed. They didn’t stay close to the Lord Jesus like Joseph and Mary did. I wonder if I keep some distance, but feel pretty good about since, after all, I did give Jesus a few gifts. I paid my offering, said some prayers, read about the magi, took canned goods to the food collection – and then I go on my way.
I fume about the commercialism of Christmas, and I could even blame the magi for kickstarting the whole idea of gift-giving at Christmas. Jesus certainly didn’t remember their visit and command us, “Because I was born, you shall shop for each other on my birthday.”
Yet there must be something lovely in seizing upon this season of the Lord’s coming to traverse afar and be as generous as possible with those I love. Maybe the magi can teach us something about giving. What would a baby do with gold or incense, much less myrrh? Theologians have suggested the gifts symbolize Jesus’ royalty (gold), his divinity (frankincense), and his suffering (myrrh), but it’s hard to say this was the magi’s intent.
They brought gifts of immense value; they brought what was precious to themselves. They parted with what they adored to adore the Lord. We are not so wise in our giving. I traverse not far at all when I shop, as I do it online. Why? It’s “easier,” more “convenient” for me. Or convenient for the recipient – hence the bane of gift cards, which say a lot about the giver (who hasn’t bothered to be creative or to think through the other person’s life and snoop around to find something meaningful), and even more about our vapid culture. We give cards… why? “They should be able to get what they want.” Is life about what I want? What if I can’t get what I want, or if I get something I didn’t want? A friend ruefully told me about Christmas day with his grandchildren, who already owned much stuff before Christmas, unwrapping gift cards, swapping them like trading cards with cousins, and rushing over to the mall to purchase yet more unnecessary items. What do we give one another? What do we give to God?
You wouldn't need to be warned in a dream not to revisit nasty king Herod! But God lovingly warns them, and “they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12). They took a different highway – but I imagine Matthew winking a little, hoping we’ll notice his subtle clue about what life is like once we’ve met Jesus. Nothing is the same. You find yourself going another way. T.S. Eliot ended his poem imagining the thoughts of the magi: “We returned to our places... but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” Jesus does not make my life more comfortable; Jesus doesn’t help me fit in and succeed. We are no longer at ease in a world not committed to Jesus. A strange, unfamiliar road is now our path. But the road is going somewhere.
Images are from Swanson, Rembrandt, and the mosaic at St Apollinaire in Ravenna.