And they left for their own country by another road.
A friend of mine made a wrong turn on her way to the beach one morning. Feeling lost and in a hurry, she pulled up alongside a roadside vegetable stand in search of directions. And there among the sweet corn and local tomatoes, she met a woman nursing an early morning cup of coffee.
“What’s the quickest way to Perdido?” my friend asked her. And the woman smiled and said, “Oh, it don’t matter, honey. All the farms are square and the world is round. You’ll find your way.”
This week I’ve been wondering what sort of roadside wisdom assisted the Wise Men finding their way to Bethlehem. St. Matthew leaves a lot to the imagination in their story. Which may explain why Christian Tradition has had so much fun coloring outside the lines of what Matthew gives us.
If you’ll notice, the Wise Men do not have names in our gospel today. And yet we know who they are: they are Caspar, Balthazaar, and Melchior. They are three kings – a detail again not mentioned at all in the gospel – and they arrive from the east, though by way of tradition, we’re to know they’re from Asia, Africa, and Europe. In other words, wherever Jesus is, in short order here comes everybody.
Another name for the Feast of the Epiphany is the Feast of the Revelation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. Said another way, it’s the revelation of Christ to everybody. Even those people, whoever they are. And to all the nations of the world.
Now, when I was little girl sitting in church listening to the preacher talk, I didn’t know what a Gentile was, though I often heard a lot about them. Gentile seemed a buzzword all over the scriptures. I’d hear the preacher say Gentiles this and Gentiles that, and I’d wonder who they were. But since I never saw anyone raise a hand in church to ask, I just listened like I knew what he meant. And some of you may know what I mean: how you can be in the dark and pretend you’re not. I was in the dark because what I didn’t know was I myself was a Gentile.
In case you don’t know, and I’m sure most of you do: a Gentile is anybody who isn’t Jewish.
In our story today, the Wise Men are the Gentiles, and they’ve followed a star into the land of the Israelites. This tells us God loves to blur the lines we draw. This tells us the farms may be square but the world is round, and by way of that long ago journey of the Wise Men who crossed into Judea to see the Christ Child, you and I and lots of other Gentiles now worship an alien god born a Jew at Christmas.
It’s a beautiful unruly turn, and today that ancient journey calls us to our own journey toward believing in the saving love of God, knowing none of us ever takes the same road to get there, but knowing, too, God in Christ will be there for us and for those people over there.
So, if you will, follow a star with me for a moment.
Judging from our gospel, holy stars have their own unique way of moving. They refuse to follow our expectations. And the Wise pay attention to them anyway, not knowing exactly where they’ll land, whether at the end of a road or somewhere off road, say, in a ditch or a manger.
The Wise pay attention to light, too, which is to say, they look for it and are open to finding it anywhere. And keep in mind: looking for light is no easy thing. There’s so much darkness to see and discuss. But the Wise follow stars because they look for God at work all around them. Plus, they enjoy learning new things, one step at time, not always sure what it will mean but sure their hearts and minds will be blessed and enlightened on the way.
Very often we begin the New Year making resolutions for our own personal self-improvement. Following a star, though, is another sort of resolution only it asks you to lose yourself a little more than the usual resolutions do, in order to seek out the will of God.
You see, it’s the will of God that draws the magi to Bethlehem. Not maps or plans of their making, but the will of God leading them toward something new and miraculous and unruly (beyond their control), something that will change them and challenge them. And here the willingness to go is crucial. Absent their willingness, they’d stay home and go nowhere at all.
If you’ll notice, when their journey lands them in Jerusalem before King Herod, they don’t arrive with answers. They’re still not sure where to go next. And it’s Herod who makes up for their uncertainty. It’s Herod who knows how to get an answer when he needs it.
Matthew tells us Herod is initially – and understandably – frightened when the Wise Men tell him they’re following a star in search of another king, and so he calls his scribes together to discern an actual location. And when they tell him about Bethlehem, Herod moves immediately to send the Wise Men there.
It’s easy to miss that when you read this story; easy to overlook how it’s actually King Herod who redirects their journey toward a particular place: toward Bethlehem. And for a moment, the mission to the Gentiles – the hope of Christ made known among all people – seems ready to fall apart.
But God’s love can’t and won’t be thwarted by fears or bad intentions. God’s love will be what it is, with or without us, whether we’re for or against it. The Wise know this, and do their best to foster the love of God for all people. They school themselves in that direction. Not away from it.
So, when the Wise Men arrive at their destination, for a moment it feels like they’ve come home. They see the mother and the child. They offer gifts and pay homage.
Entering this part of the story is personal for every person. We might arrive on the same road – or not – but we’ll come bearing gifts unique to each of us. The hope is we’ll receive the love of Christ and offer what we have. And we’ll need his love because the journey doesn’t end there, does it? Instead it leads us homeward, back to where we began. As Matthew puts it, the Wise returned to their country by another road.
That other road tells us God in Christ came to send us home in a new way. In the words of poet T. S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
To know that place is to see life through the eyes of love.
Hard as it must have been, the Wise Men followed a star that led them home, and there, I imagine, the light of Christ – the revelation of God’s love for all people – fell on everything and everyone. Surely, it changed how they thought about life. Surely, it changed how they treated and thought about other people. Surely, as I imagine, the Epiphany of Jesus Christ made it hard for them to tell the same old jokes in the same old way. Made it hard to ignore the pain of anyone.
God is always mysteriously leading us toward home by another way.
So, look for light to shine on everyone. Look for Christ, at all times and in all places, knowing all the farms are square, yes, and the world is round, and you’ll find your way.