Christmas is a really simple feast: God born among us, for us to see and hear, taste and touch and smell. Yet when we actually read the Gospels it quickly gets complicated — and, I think, more relevant to our not-so-simple world today.
Mark and John do not speak of the birth of Jesus. The feast is most vividly imagined in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, and rightly so. When we “see” the Nativity, we are usually “seeing” Luke’s version of it, and that is very good indeed. Matthew’s telling of the birth of the child is, as I mentioned last week, minimal:
"When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1.24-25)
Yes, Matthew gives us a few wonderful details, most notably the star and the Magi, wise men from the East. It seems easy enough to add those details of Matthew 2 to the Lukan account, as easy as adding the figures of the Magi to a Nativity scene, alongside the shepherds, sheep and oxen, and the angel above. Their star of course looks very nice, just above the stable. And as a bonus, if we allow the visit of the Magi to stand on its own, Herod is pushed off the stage — we never see a Herod figure in a Nativity scene! — while the desperate escape to Egypt and the awful massacre of the children are shuffled off to a separate feast on December 28.
But the price of fitting Matthew into Luke’s scene and sidelining the darker parts of his story is to lose sight of the hard-edged, and challenging message Matthew is giving us in his second chapter: the light shines in the darkest of times; human weakness, failure, and evil do not thwart God’s intention to dwell among us. Let us look at the dark part of this chapter, and then see how the light shines all the brighter.
Matthew’s Magi enter the scene only after a long journey that takes a long time — a year or more? — arriving well after the actual birth of Jesus. Reasonably enough, expecting a royal child, they approach king Herod and ask him about the whereabouts of this child. They do not know that Herod is a wicked king, working hand in hand with the Roman oppressors and clinging to power. So he is disturbed even to hear of a possible rival:
"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. (2.1-3)
Herod sends them away, and consults with his advisors:
"When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ (2.4-6)
He talks again to the Magi, and sends them on their way to Bethlehem (though for some reason he does not simply have them followed!):
"Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. (2.7-8)
The story does not end well. The Magi, warned in a dream, sneak off (camels and all) into the desert by another route, while Joseph, similarly warned in a dream, takes Mary and Jesus and flees to Egypt, hundreds of miles away:
"When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Hosea 11.1) (2.13-15)
And then, in the truly horrid sequel — no “all is calm, all is bright” that night — Herod murders all the boys of the age that the child Jesus would by now have reached:
"When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (2.16)
Even at chapter’s end, lingering fear explains why the family ended up in Nazareth:
"So Joseph (instructed by an angel) got up, took the child and his mother and returned to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned by another dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. (2.21-23)
How dark a Nativity scene Matthew 2 gives us!
OK, you may say, but on this Sunday, January 3, 2021, we celebrate the great and happy feast of the Epiphany, the shining of the light of Christ in the world. For many Christians in the Churches of the East, this is the real Christmas (and of course is properly celebrated only on January 6). It celebrates the light of Christ shining now even for those among us — almost all of us — who are not lucky enough to be Jewish. So there really is good news shining out amid the bad news.
Who were the Magi? There are options:
Magi: the name given by the Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and others, to those wise teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.;
Or: false prophets and sorcerers;
Or: the oriental wise men who, having discovered by the rising of a remarkable star that the Messiah had just been born, came to Jerusalem to worship him (adapted from the online Theological Dictionary of the New Testament)
Magic has a bad name in the Bible, and so too the reading of the stars. But Matthew is not worried about all that. He introduces Magi without accusing them of anything, and indeed without explaining what “magi” are, since he is interested in what happens when someone who is not like us, not known and approved in advance, comes from far off to meet the young Jesus.
After the Magi leave Herod’s palace, they find what they have been looking for:
"After they had heard the king, the Magi went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
Overcome with joy, they enter the house (not "stable") where the family is living; they see, and they worship:
"On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they prostrate themselves and worshiped him.
And, in an echo of the universal scene unfolded in today’s first reading from Isaiah 60, they give their exotic gifts:
"Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (2.9-11)
What is striking — beyond the fact that they could find the young Jesus and his mother at all, based on reading stars — is that Matthew really is neutral: they are Magi; they come a considerable way to see the child, when most local people remained clueless or suspicious; they find the child; and afterwards they go home. But how long did they spend with Jesus, Mary and Joseph? An hour? A few days?
We might want to think that their lives are greatly changed by the encounter, but Matthew does not say. All we are told are the basics: the Magi were wise, they saw the Christ, they rejoiced with a great joy, they saw and they worshipped, they gave what they had to give, and they returned home.
So, inside the gloomy second chapter of the Gospel, we have this wonderful instance of encounter with Christ — and his mother — that fulfills the hopes that instigated a long and fanciful journey in search of a new-born king. Particularly within the frame of uncertainty, dishonesty, danger and violence surrounding it, the simplicity of the moment of vision, joy, and worship is all the more powerful — which is why we must read all of Matthew 2, not just the parts we like at Christmas time.
Even if Matthew 28, the end of the Gospel, gives us what is known as the great missionary command — “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...” (28.19) — Matthew 2 ought not be forgotten or reduced to a Christmas ornament. Rather, lighten up: let Christ be seen in life, in scripture, in the stars and amid all the signs that nature gives us, let him be found by anyone who cares enough to leave home and cross many deserts to find him, getting into trouble and risking everything along the way; let the encounter with Jesus bring joy to everyone who finds him, worships him, even if they do not stay with us, since they have to go home again...
The light of Christ is for all, and it is free: it is Epiphany.
A little more: There are of course other ways to ponder the Magi, in whose story we have tended to read our own life stories. You will enjoy this beautiful setting of the familiar “We Three Kings”, sung by the King’s Choir, Cambridge UK. The famed poet T.S. Eliot wrote the dark and brooding “Journey of the Magi” (which he reads here), pondering whether the Magi’s visit might have actually ruined their lives, taking the old without giving any new certitudes. Dorothy Sayers, the witty British novelist and cultural critic, wrote “The Three Kings,” a poem that sees the three Magi as marking how we meet Christ in our youth, in middle age, and in old age; you can hear it sung here in the setting by Jonathan Dove here. And finally, you will want to read (or read again) Henry van Dyke’s “The Other Wise Man,” a short story about the Magus who never made it to Bethlehem — but then kept finding Jesus everywhere else in the course of his life.