We’re so used to seeing them, the Magi, that we forget that the scenes of them bowing at the manger are simply artistic licence. They weren’t there as Jesus took his first human breaths, they didn’t rub shoulders with shepherds. No, the Wise Men came later.
So much of what surrounds them is extrapolation and myth-making. There weren’t necessarily three of them, and there’s no indication that they were kings. The names assigned to them in the west appeared 500 years after the fact; their country of origin seems to depend on who you ask. They’re shrouded in mystery, but there they are in every nativity scene.
Well, maybe not all of them. A few tweets this morning alerted me to a tradition of leaving the wise men off nativity scenes until Epiphany comes around, sometimes with the figures making their way to the stable from other rooms in the house. I like this idea; there’s something evocative about it, a focus on the journey of the Magi which emphasises the importance of their arrival.
Of course, we don’t know how long their journey took, where they started from or when the star first appeared. We can guess that Jesus was a toddler based on the age of Herod’s victims, and so it’s possible the road was long and hard, but maybe the wise men faced a more metaphorical journey.
After all, we know their understanding of the situation was incomplete – yes, they were looking for the King of the Jews, but they went to Jerusalem rather than Bethlehem and started the dominoes falling that lead to the Slaughter of the Innocents. We tend to think of them as clued in, but it feels as though they’re on something of a learning curve, even in their wisdom.
Their journey seems to start with God meeting them where they are; the shepherds get angels, the wise men get a star. This seems to be something they understand – the Magi know they have to get to Israel because of this astronomical phenomenon, and this raises some (uncomfortable) questions about how exactly they knew the star would lead them to the Messiah. But wait, let’s put those questions aside: this is God encountering them in a way they understand, among their everyday routines. In some imperfect way they’re on the lookout for him, and so they’re rewarded with a star and a pilgrimage.
They don’t altogether trust the star though; at one point they go their own way, follow their own presuppositions, and this has lethal consequences. The lesson here is obvious – keep following, don’t assume God works in the way you’re expecting. Because Herod isn’t the king you’re looking for, and it’s always a mistake to equate the kingship of Jesus with crowns and palaces.
The star continues on its way though, and finally leads the wise men to Jesus. They present him with gifts – gold, frankincense, myrrh. Apparently these were fairly standard offerings for a monarch of the time, but once again the journey of the wise men becomes prophetically subversive. After all, gold is an ironic gift for a king who’ll spend more time in poverty than luxury. Frankincense has overtones of religious devotion, but did they realise that they were handing it over to God incarnate? And myrrh points to death and burial, but I bet no-one was thinking of crucifixion as they watched Jesus toddle across the room.
(That’s a contrast right there – they’re in a house, presumably, certainly not a palace. Mary and Joseph would have been getting on with life, changing nappies, enduring sleepless nights, juggling work and domesticity with childcare. It’s a very ordinary scene into which the wise men stumble, and maybe that spoke to them – they never expected to find the King of the Jews in a house, looked after by a teenage girl and a carpenter, and yet there he is. It’s hard to believe their assumptions and stereotypes survived this particular journey. The Kingdom of God emerges in the everyday, and we risk missing something if we forget that.)
And then comes the dream: take another route home because to go back the way you came would be disastrous. If ever there was a metaphor for encountering Jesus, there it is, but there’s something in this moment that’s left hanging. We don’t know what happened to the Magi after they left, we don’t know if the experience changed them, or if they just considered it the fulfilment of their diplomatic duty. Their journey ends as mysteriously as it started.
And maybe that’s okay, because Matthew doesn’t just tell their story in the interests of reportage, he’s also using them to represent us – the Gentiles, the outsiders, the ones who were once far from God who nevertheless find themselves kneeling before the Messiah. Their journey is our journey, following as best we can as God manifests and challenge and welcomes. He draws us to him, and despite the bumps in the road, he invites us to respond – with our gifts, with our worship, but most of all with ourselves.
Epiphany celebrates a time in which God reveals himself to those who were once far away, and so next year my wooden wise men may take a longer route to the stable. And we travel with them, towards the baby, towards the king, towards God, only to find that he was seeking us out all along.