Anticipation and expectation—two energies that drive us forward to awaited or predicted events. We often anticipate events or perhaps times in our lives when a certain feat is accomplished or some new plateau is reached. In high school we can’t wait to go to college. During my final year of seminary, I couldn’t wait to be ordained and go to my first church.
Destinations become symbols for accomplishments or rites of passage. We look to them to provide affirmation that we are going somewhere or making progress, or at least enjoying ourselves. We follow our dreams or goals or a path that unfolds before us. We move toward life events or perhaps events of cosmic proportions, hoping to reach a destination that will be life changing or life fulfilling.
As usually happens after we reach a destination, the anticipation ends, and shortly thereafter, so does the event. However, sometimes the event or destination is so profound that it lasts for eternity and changes the course of history, not just for ourselves but for humanity.
The Wise Men or Magi set out on a journey with a destination in mind. They were eastern astrologers and astronomers—the disciplines were not necessary independently defined in the ancient world. They were following a specific star. These men were Gentiles, not Jews, and they followed patterns and changes in the stars, which told them that a great spiritual king would be born. The baby that was to be born would be the savior of humankind.
They had no access to the prophetic predictions in the scriptures concerning the birth of Jesus. Matthew tells us that upon seeing this star, the magi were full of exceedingly great joy. For the first time the Jewish God YHWH was revealing God’s self to seekers outside the nation of Israel. No wonder these Magi made the arduous trip to Bethlehem to find the Christ Child. Most likely they started out a year ahead of his birth, not really knowing exactly where they were going.
As an aside, they did not show up at the stable where Jesus was born, as our crèche scenes suggest. They would have arrived at the home of Mary and Joseph, with the baby Jesus being around one to two years old.
Why did they make this arduous journey that would have taken a year or more? And why were they filled with exceedingly great joy? The birth of this child was an event that would change the course of humanity’s history with God: the mother lode of human destinies in the ancient world. Perhaps it was because they were on this journey into a long anticipated event of cosmic proportions, a search for something completely new that would alter the course of history.
By the way, we don’t actually know how many magi there were. We assume there were three, but there could have been more. What we do know is that three gifts are brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold represented the royalty of Christ. Frankincense was made from the gum of a tree found in Asia and Africa that produces an aromatic smoke used in worship. As a matter of fact, the incense we use on Christmas Eve is frankincense. Myrrh was used to anoint bodies for burial. We might find interesting that as a symbol of suffering and death; it foretold Christ’s giving of himself for others.
For King Herod, however, a different kind of anticipation took hold. Call it high anxiety or fear. After all, he is a fake king of the Jews, who had been put in power by the Romans. This star that had risen in the east was cause for concern. This star did not fill Herod with joy. Rather, it struck terror in his heart. Would this child king threaten his rule? What would this new “King of the Jews” mean for his future?
This particular Herod was one of history’s great villains. He not only murdered most of his friends, but also his wife and three of his own sons. He was threatened by everybody. It was said of Herod in his own day, that it was better to be his sow than his son; the pig in the royal barnyard had a better hope of survival. Jerusalem got nervous and fearful as well, because they knew how bloody Herod could be when he was anxious. When Herod isn’t happy, no one is happy. But, the magi are full of joy, and Herod and all of Jerusalem are full of fear…Two very different reactions to a great, anticipated event.
Where do you find yourself in this story? As you reach the time and birthplace of the baby Jesus, are you fearful like Herod and the Jerusalem populace? Are you doubtful and snickering about this sentimental tale? Or are you full of joy like the magi?
Before the coming of a new Lord into our lives, we are most likely a mixture of both joy and fear because this Jesus calls us to go on a journey. And this journey has little to do with the superficiality we might have given ourselves over to. As enjoyable as these things are, they are ends in themselves. And then it is over, and we go back to life as usual.
Or perhaps we consider ourselves too sophisticated, too evolved, or too wise in our own minds to accept the Christ event anew by faith and let it transform us. If we are given to any of these scenarios, we can hardly say that we are people who have seen a great light or experienced a life changing event. Let’s face it. This baby becomes a source of judgment for us. Oh yes, there is joy, but in him we see a mirror of ourselves, warts and all.
Truth can do that, especially if we are hiding or running from the truth about ourselves, or if we are clinging to a personal, arrogant possession of what we think is truth. We become afraid and when we are afraid, we’re like Herod. Fear of change can bring out the worst in us, and we can be miserable to be around. And we can be sure that an encounter with the Christ will always mean change if we receive him in his fullness. This affliction of fear or resistance can torment us as persons and as whole worshiping communities, and actually can alienate us from the very ones with whom we should be sharing love.
For the magi, the baby Jesus brought out the best in them. I imagine their search was with open spirits. So, they were joyful. We are also like the magi. Reading of the magi bringing their gifts to the baby Jesus, kneeling in homage to him should remind us of ourselves. That is what we are doing, by coming to church this morning, kneeling in prayer and worshiping before Jesus, seeking truth and light in him. In some ways, the magi were the very first church, the first to bend the knee and worship Jesus.
The celebration of the birth of the Christ Child every year calls all of us to go on a journey, to search out a destination that leads to discovery, truth, and great joy. But to do so, we have to relinquish our sense of comfort and control and go to where the star will lead us, without knowing the end.
Can we, as the church, rise with this shining new star to a new sense of adventure, forsaking our familiar personal boundaries, and following Jesus into unknown territory? Are we willing to give up the notion that our journey is simply taking us to a destination, an annual ritual, and realize that in the process of reaching this destination, we are really embarking on a new beginning and a new way of being God’s people in the world? We should always be changed, renewed, enlightened in a fresh way, and brought to a new experience of God’s love—challenging us to live into God’s call on our lives—loving God and our neighbor.
Barbara Marian writes: “The story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew allowed the Jewish followers of Jesus to imagine the unthinkable—God’s grace extending to the outsiders, the gentiles. Who are the outsiders in our world? Can we imagine the favor of God extending beyond the human boundaries of race, class, nationality, ethnicity, religious devotion, and gender? (Can we imagine allowing God to transform us—letting go of old hostilities and habits?) The Epiphany story portrays people on a journey in search of the truth and a glimpse of the divine, people ‘seeking God with a sincere heart.’”
The Christ Child, Baby Jesus, the Messiah of God, the Prince of Peace, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords calls us individually, and corporately as the Church, to follow him as a living Lord. He is a savior who seeks our allegiance as he leads us forward into territory we might never encounter on our own. By ourselves, we will surely miss the mark.
This journey can be one fraught with fearful anticipation of losing control, strangely enough, of the parts of our lives that cause us and others pain. It is caused by the desire to be Lord of our own lives and cling to our own ideas of truth, which often exclude those we should be embracing. You know the ones, brother and sister sandpaper, someone whose politics differ from yours, someone to whom God has revealed a different version of truth in one or two areas about which you feel strongly.
Hopefully the Light of the Christ Child can shine into those areas where we willfully hurt or exclude others.
The journey to follow the Light that leads us to the Christ Child can be an exciting adventure, filled with joy, if we are willing to hear something other than our own voice about God’s truth and purposes in God’s Kingdom. We just might discover new and richer ways of being God’s people. Change won’t happen by itself. As Gandhi wrote, “We must become the change we want in the world.”
Or as Fr. Jim Burns wrote in one of his recent Daily Meds, “Don’t be one person when you pray to God, and a different person when you are with your neighbor.” In other words, you can’t say you love God if you are mean spirited with your neighbor.
And, so, we let go of our fears, our preconceived ideas, our tenacious grasp on our lives and set ways, and let God’s Holy Spirit give us wings to soar not into a final destination, but into a new beginning for ourselves, our families, our faith community, and our world…an eternal holy banquet with the entire human family that has no end. Amen.