Isaiah 60,1-6 + Psalm 72 + Ephesians 2,2-3a, 5-6 + Matthew 2,1-12
As I sit quietly with this Gospel story that is so familiar, full of nuance and theological implications, I am aware that it is also one in which deep cultural traditions keep telling the story. Earlier this evening I took a walk up the street to a grocery store here in Paris where I am presently, and there was large display of round pastry about two inches thick about the size of a pie. Under the plastic covering was a gold paper crown folded up. Somewhere in the cake is a small plastic image of the baby, Jesus. As the local tradition goes, tomorrow and all through Christmas Season when this desert is served, the person who finds the plastic image in their serving wears the paper crown for the rest of the evening. Carried over into some parts of our country, this is known as the “King Cake”.
Matthew is a great story teller, and this one is full of details, and unique characters, suspense, intrigue, and multi layers of meanings and mystery. The mysterious star, those unique gifts, the suspense of Herod’s plot, the charm of these foreigners that has delighted artists as much as theologians since the story was first told all weave together to excite the curious and tease the ignorant. The struggle between light and darkness is so significant providing us with such an important title for Jesus Christ as Light of the World!
What has left me wondering over the past several days with this Gospel is how or why those experts in the Law remained behind and did not join the strangers. Of course, what sense is there in following someone who is lost? It makes me think of my father who would never consider asking directions to the constant aggravation of my mother. Of course, as child it was hard to image that my father was ever lost! So, here come these “Wise Men”, these “Kings”, depending on the translation you prefer. The gifts they bring suggest that they are in for a surprise. They have it all wrong. When they have no light, they head for Jerusalem, the seat of power in their search for a King. They plan to visit a King, which is probably why they checked in with Herod. There is no light in Jerusalem; only darkness and ignorance. Light leads them to Bethlehem, a no-place hardly fit for a king. There they find a baby belonging to a simple, ordinary couple, probably rather poor who are must have been as surprised as they are by the visit.
What strikes me this year in the telling of this old story and continues to give me reason to reflect is these experts of the law and the prophets. They confirm everything the visitors had been led to believe, but in spite of what goes on between them, the experts do not join the journey. The Wise Men go on alone. It seems to me that with this confirmation they would would all have joined the journey to see this one so long awaited, and so clearly promised. But, they do not. They stay where they are content or satisfied to study about Jesus rather than to go and see Jesus, or get involved, or have their own experience of Jesus.
Those scholars simply spectators who will study and watch. They never go to see. There is a big difference between watching and seeing. Even today, there are so many in this world who like to “study” the Bible; but never seem to get beyond the study part into the action. These wise men, in contrast to the experts were willing and wanted to do more than study, or watch. They wanted to see!
In English we have an interesting use of that word: “see.” We often use it in conversation to express the fact that we have come to understand. “I see what you mean.” we sometimes say…….The experts were not interested in “seeing”, and certainly Herod was not interested in seeing anything that might threaten his power there in Jerusalem. But how could anything in little-old Bethlehem threaten that great power? With that question, the story we tell begins to make sense, at least for believers who tell this story again and again. Those who want to see, who seek, like those who eat the cake looking for the little piece will wear a crown!
We proclaim today the heart of the Gospel Message: a promise fulfilled, Light in the Darkness, earthly power overthrown by the power of God discovered in the least of all places and poorest of people. Those who want to see, who want to see the face and presence of God ought not look into the face of power and prestige, but into the face of little people, weak and vulnerable people where the power of God and the presence of God has taken flesh. We who hear and who tell this story are a people living in the Light and as children of the Light, we can see: see God’s presence, see God’s mercy, see God’s love in this simple family in Bethlehem.
The lost can hear in this story a call to enter the light, and in that light see the God who seeks them. The “experts” who study and study without ever seeing and doing anything about what they study can hear a call to experience the salvation promised long ago, a call to live the joy and the peace promised by the prophets and the law.
There is way more here than simply a revelation suggesting the inclusion of gentiles among God’s holy and chosen ones. There is a call to seek, to see, to experience, and to live in the Light discovering that those who follow the light of Christ will ultimately be led to Jerusalem where God’s power in the resurrection of Christ will pull down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.