1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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."
3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."
9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
What Makes the Wisemen Wise
Like you, I am versed in the legends surrounding the twelfth-night visitors to the manger. Whether they are kings, magicians, or astrologers is beside the point I am going to try to make about them: that they were wise indeed.
But first the star, about which there has been much speculation. The Hayden Planetarium has (or at least had) a program this time of the year showing what the wise men might have seen, a configuration of three heavenly bodies so close to one another that, as seen by the naked eye, they seemed to be a single star. That the resulting bright light is called the Star of the East does puzzle me, since to travelers from the East, it must have seemed to be shining in the West. Of course, I am no astronomer. What I know of the night sky (at which I rarely look, except in summer in Vermont), I learned to pass a requirement for First Class in Boy Scouts.
Another curious feature about the star is its purported leading of the wise men to the manger, as if it moved like the prop in a Sunday School Christmas pageant, sliding on an overhead wire until positioned directly above baby Jesus. Maybe, but Matthew reports the wise men checked in with the local authorities in the temple to make sure they were on the right track. I understand. I spot Polaris in mid-summer, locked in in the northern sky; and were I to follow it north to latitude 90, it would still be a needle-in-the-haystack search for anyone spot at the pole. Especially if the spot one was looking for a king was as unlikely as a stable.
But these searchers were wise, and not wise in their own conceits, like most of the wise of this and every other generation. They possessed the wisdom of the true scholar, that is a certainty born of study and experience, embraced with a generous humility. Like that quote attributed to Socrates: "I know that I know nothing." So they listened. They listened to voices of the present representing voices of the past. Sound familiar? Should. Or why sit in the bench in front of the pulpit on Sunday (or Saturday) mornings? These fellows from the East get directions, it turns out, from Scripture on where to look for the king.
That was my endeavor for fifty years as the pastor of a congregation of seekers. Some call it "preaching the Word." The opening Sunday in July 1973, when I faced a new congregation on Long Island for the first time, my theme was where to find the kingdom of God, and mostly, I concluded, it would be outside the doors of the church in the world around us. If it had been December, my best illustration would have been a manger... as, contrasted, say, with a chancel or nave. But it was summertime and I pointed to a (now demolished!) local scene of many celebrations, Carl Hoppl's, just a block away... that the world, even a local restaurant, is filled with the glory of God.
They, those congregants, one or another of them, came to me occasionally in that other pastoral sanctuary, the office/study, seeking my opinion (actually not my opinion, but my reassurance) on a multitude of personal issues, including extraordinary experiences. Epiphanies, they might be called. Even in retirement a former pastor gathers these personal brushes with divinity. As I did the other evening at a party, when a woman recounted her inner turmoil and how she found peace and resolution at a Catholic retreat center through the counsel of a Franciscan brother... and the center, run by Passionists, had no knowledge of any Franciscan religious on their grounds. Touched by an angel? Child of the Enlightenment that I also am, my rational inclination is to take such personal testimonies with a large grain of salt. But I have lived long enough to know I know nothing and, especially when it comes to other people's spirituality, to withhold judgment, under the guidance of the golden rule and a number of other Bible verses I'll spare you. My friend believes she was found by God, and he was wearing a brown tunic, a rope belt, and sandals. Why not? If God appears in rags prettied up as "swaddling cloths," a coarse fabric tunic could very well pass for a purple robe.
So the wise men kneel in homage beside the manger. It takes a wise (some would say "hopelessly foolish") soul to anticipate the eternal greatness in a suckling infant; but every hero has a helpless beginning. What distinguishes these visitors to Bethlehem from the rest of us (we who, for instance, have stood at the hospital nursery window and imagined our newborn as the President of the USA) is that succeeding events proved them correct in their assessment of Mary's baby. That is, they were not only prescient; they were also lucky. And not put off by the absence of worldly grandeur.
When the adoration subsides and the wise men leave (earthly rapture has its time limits!), they once again prove their wisdom. Contrary to the request of King Herod, who soon would send his marauding soldiers into the territory to impale with their bayonets every newborn son of the Jews, the visitors to the manger take an alternate route home. They have obviously learned in their years observing kingdoms rise and fall that no one wearing a crown ever yields his place willingly. The powers-that-be want to remain the powers-that-be. Regime change is always anathema to the boss. Maybe the wise men heard Mary repeating to Joseph the Magnificat, about bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. Treason to Herod's ears! Burdened with such a knowledge, the wise men fade into the desert leaving the murderous king with nary a clue. This detail of their visit can be read in the light of the Bethlehem baby's words to his disciples thirty years later, that they should be as wise as serpents if as harmless as doves. Knowledge of how the world works can be made to serve higher purposes.
Coming and going, and kneeling at the manger, these wise men were wise indeed.
Go and do like wise.