January 8, 2023 at St William Catholic Church in Naples, FL
Isaiah 60: 1-6 + Psalm 72 + Ephesians 3 2-6 + Matthew 2: 1-12
There is a bit of everything in these verses from Matthew’s Gospel today. It’s sort-of like a stew, which was the way my mother used to hide vegetables. We got a bit everything and it was nourishing. To get into the real message of these verses however, you have to put that song written by John Henry Hopkins for a Christmas Pageant out of your mind. If you think Matthew’s Gospel is more important than Hopkins’ hymn, forget about Three and delete Kings. Hopkin’s idea about there being three of them comes from the number of gifts. To make any kind of long journey in those days would have required a big caravan. If you have ever been on a camping trip, you know what I mean. The camping gear and the food takes up more space in the car than the people. Matthew never calls them “Kings”. The Greek word he chooses is “Magoi” which can refer to magicians or astrologers. More likely they were Zoroastrian priests since that religion was prominent to east of Palestine. What matters is that they were searching, and they were willing to get far from home in their search.
Today we would call them pilgrims. They were willing, not only to leave home, but willing to look beyond the limits of their own knowledge. They were so hungry for more meaning in life that they were willing to go to a foreign land and consult the wisdom of an alien tradition. Without the Hebrew Scriptures to guide, they relied on their traditional ways of knowing God through nature and the stars. If we were wise, we ought to be able see a lot of ourselves in them unless we are just stuck and not really willing to risk anything to find greater meaning in life and the one who could reveal that meaning.
Then there is that guy named “Herod”. He is evil and terrifying. He is a murderer and a violent tyrant given to jealousy and fear. With this piece of the story we are reminded that powers of this world can be mighty and terrifying. Yet, we learn that God can get around all of that in unexpected, simple and non-violent ways.
Mixed in with all of that, there are those chief priests and scribes. They know things, but they lack wisdom. Unwilling to seek the truth, they are content to play it safe, hang around Herold, and turn a blind eye to light. They know and they tell the Magi where to look, but they can’t be bothered to leave comfortable Jerusalem for a place like Bethlehem.
So, as Matthew’s story goes, the Magi with their rich gifts fit for a King leave nothing for King Herod and his royal court. They save what they have for a simple family. This wonderful and familiar story is unfinished. All we know is that those pilgrims went home avoiding that place of power and earthly glory.
We tell this story every year right after Christmas to be reminded that while our salvation began with the chosen people, the Gospel and the Incarnation it proclaims is for the entire world, for all nations, as Jesus said when commissioning the disciples. We would do well to put ourselves into this story and be stirred up enough to become pilgrims like these Magi willing to admit that we don’t know everything there is and if we really want to find the truth, we will have to consult the Scriptures. At the same time, we might take a good look at those religious people, those Scribes and Chief Priests. There is a warning in this story that those unwilling to seek the truth, to listen to the Scriptures, who want to play it safe and hang around people like Herod are going to stay in the darkness.
Just like those Magi, we can’t go it alone. We have to go together in order to brave the dangers of the journey and risk the unknown. We all have gifts fit for the King, and Matthew suggests that we need to seek that King and realize that this royal and divine child will be found in places like Bethlehem far from power, from wealth, and comfort. As Matthew reminds us, God can and always does get around the obstacles that might get in the way or threaten our journey. So, for those who believe and want to find meaning in life or find life itself we have to stay on the move, keep listening to the Scriptures, and stay together.