In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.
- Matthew 2.1-3 (NRSV).The Gospels are filled with characters whose reactions to Jesus serve as positive and negative examples to readers. The text invites us to reflect upon our own reactions and which characters we resemble.
The well-known story of the Magi (or wise men) often simply supplies so many more figures standing in the background of a nativity scene we have surveyed hundreds of times, or perhaps a brief gloss on why we give gifts at this time of year. But there is far more to them than their stunning generosity.
The Magi, whose precise origins are only gestured at ("from the East") and whose number can only be guessed from their threefold offering, were confronted with the emergence of something new and unexpected; they dropped everything and departed into the unknown, embarking on a long journey, whose dangers are compounded by the treasures they carry. They search for a figure who brings the future: a child born to be king of a nation presently under imperial occupation. Holding high status in their own society, they depart to where they will likely be misunderstood and mistrusted in order to offer a symbolic gesture of hope that points to new possibilities. They sit lightly to the status quo, dropping their various pressing responsibilities and disrupting their daily routine in order to acknowledge the new thing that has appeared and see where it leads. They are thus open and receptive to the future, and search for it beyond the boundaries of the comfortable.
As the story unfolds, the Magi's hope and faith inadvertently disrupt the political order. They are received at Herod's Court - perhaps the most obvious place to begin a search for a royal child: within the household of the one presently occupying the throne - and yet quickly discover that the new they seek is not simply the continuation of the present, but arises from an unexpected quarter. The royal child belongs outside of contemporary constellations of power and so represents a challenge and a threat to them. The Magi are willing to place themselves and the social order at risk in order to honour this new figure. Neither their own survival nor the preservation of the peace are sufficient to deter them from pursuing their quest.
When they reach their destination, they are overjoyed. Despite the humble surroundings and the great distance they have travelled, despite the incongruity of their wealth with Mary's poverty, despite the foreignness of the context and the difficulty in accepting an infant of no standing as the object and bearer of their hopes, they kneel and pay him homage.
There are many mysteries surrounding these Magi. Who were they? Where were they from? Why did they interpret a star as having significance for Judah? And why, having found the child and sworn fealty to him, did they depart from Bethlehem and from the pages of history? Yet their utter receptivity to the arrival of the messianic moment offers us a strange and disquieting model of faith and hope.
In contrast, King Herod presents a picture of suspicion, hostility, self-interest and the worst kind of deadly conservatism. Bearing the title "King of the Jews" through an act of betrayal that rendered its messianic symbolism largely impotent, Herod clung to the power granted him at Rome's pleasure. Faced with the arrival of foreign dignitaries with stunning and potentially explosive news, Herod's receptivity is pure pretense, his engagement with the traditions of holy scripture self-serving, his hospitality merely an opportunity to secure his own position and power. He does not want anything new to emerge without it being forcibly dragged within the sphere of his influence and benefit. The future must be made the servant of the present order and, ultimately, if that requires the sacrifice of future generations, then that is the price for stability. Suffering and violence are tools, justice and compassion secondary, honesty and integrity expendable: nothing must threaten my present comforts. The Herodian way of life is not up for negotiation.
Are we any less foolish today? Where are the wise men? And most importantly, where is the Christ-child to be found: amidst our comfortable status quo that requires the destruction of others' futures? Or as yet unseen, hidden in plain sight amongst the lowly and filthy and requiring a journey of faith conducted with little more than flickering starlight for guidance?