Just when you thought that Christmas was over, magi show up on the distant horizon today as the Catholic church -- and many Christian churches -- celebrate their arrival in Bethlehem with the Feast of the Epiphany.
If the magi story of Matthew's gospel teaches us anything, it reminds us that the story of Jesus' birth in a Bethlehem stable was no idyllic country folk tale. Here is the story plot: At home in their distant lands, the foreigners, most probably Persian astrologers, had all the comforts of princely living, but something was missing -- they were restless and unsatisfied. Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem a child is born at the same time as a death-dealing power rules. A great star beckons the magi to set out for the meeting of a lifetime.
In the story, Matthew introduces "all the chief priests and scribes of the people" as advisers of the sinister King Herod, and implies that they, too, were troubled by the magis' word of the birth of the Messiah. Knowing that Herod was paranoid on the subject of any threat to his throne, they should have realized that he would not look kindly upon an infant "king of the Jews."
By disclosing to Herod the birthplace of the Messiah the advisers became, effectively, collaborators in his evil intent. In fact it is they, not Herod, who will later bring about the death of the "king of the Jews." It is the "chief priests and elders of the people" who will plot to arrest and kill Jesus. He was a threat to Herod and to them -- to the throne of one, to the religious empire of the others.
The negative reaction of Herod and his advisers, the chief priests and scribes, turns the "Christmas" infancy narrative into a tragic adult story. King Herod tries to co-opt the wise men to betray their journey, to end their commitment to future possibility and new life. At the centre of the whole story lies a baby who is joy. Herod is afraid of this "great joy for all the people." In the end, the magi went their own way, because they refused to be seduced by cynicism and instead allowed themselves to be surprised by this great joy.
C.S. Lewis (of Narnia fame) is associated more than anything else with his use of the word "joy." It is interesting that he used it, not so much to describe his sense of the abiding presence of God, as to speak of the ongoing longing for God.
The experience of the magi reminds us that all who make the tedious journey to the truth will finally encounter it and be changed in the process. They can never go back to a "business as usual" way of life. When we meet Christ and see who he really is, we will never be the same -- and only then can we hope to begin to share in his mission.
This poem from the Shaker tradition illustrates what the real work of Christmas and of Christ is all about:
"When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings are back home, When the shepherds are once more with their flocks, When Simeon and Anna have gone to their Master in peace,
Then the work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, to heal the broken,
To release the prisoners, to rebuild nations, To bring peace to all people, To make music in the heart. Amen."