What did they come to see? I can imagine this was the question that Herod asked these three strangers from the East. What could have brought them from their far-off places and far-off cultures so distant and other, to come to Israel?
Matthew’s Gospel, of course tells us a star led them. And while they knew that they were travelling to pay homage to a king—the fact that they were apparently kings themselves makes me wonder why it would matter at all.
Honestly, most of what we know about these men comes from tradition. As we’ve just read, Matthew’s Gospel really doesn’t tell us much about them. However, what becomes evident from the text (and perhaps the most important thing about this story) is that these men were not from Israel. All the same, they understood that the birth of Jesus was something extraordinary and something for the world.
It’s an interesting story but it appropriately marks the beginning of the season of Epiphany—this season of Light and revelation. It makes this very nice transition from the birth narrative of Christmas, and draws us into the miracles and mysteries of Christ.
Epiphany, as you probably know is the season when we recall the revelations of God (also called theophanies)—God’s in-breaking into our reality. We also read about these manifestations in the miracles and signs that Jesus did. Of course the most profound of these theophanies is the birth of Jesus himself, the Incarnation of God.
But what did these wise men come to see? It’s not as if they could have guessed all that Jesus would become or what he would do, much less what he would mean for all of Creation… Then again, even those of us who know the stories can’t really fathom all that Jesus is.
So, perhaps we could ask ourselves the question: What have we come to see? What brings us from our homes to be here every Sunday? I mean, sure we know that church attendance is one of the items on the checklist for being a good Christian. But a checklist really isn’t a very good reason to waste a perfectly good Sunday…
Instead, I believe it’s something far deeper. In fact, I would say that we come here for the same reason that the Wise Men followed the star. There was a profound mystery that called out to them and drew them deeper into the greater mysteries of God.
The thing about mysteries and signs is that they call us out of our places of comfort. They also call us inward, to a deeper place to try to understand what it is that compels us. But the mysteries of God call us to come together to share our experiences of God, and together try to understand their greater significance. It’s like the old Indian proverb about the blind men experiencing an elephant. Each of them feels a different part—ears, tusks, legs, tail. When they later compare notes, they find their in complete disagreement about what the elephant is like. The point being, that if they would have shared their collective experience, a fuller picture of what the elephant is would have emerged.
This, I think, is where the idea of being spiritual but not religious fails. Because outside of religious tradition, we can easily mistake our spiritual experiences with the divine as something for ourselves only. Whereas religious tradition calls us to relationship and responsibility for one another. It gives us a place to come together to try to figure out just what our experiences with God in Jesus Christ really mean. And in this way, by sharing our experiences and revelations of God, we get a fuller understanding of who God is—and inevitably draws us closer together as a community of faith.
We really only have Church tradition and legend to tell us what might have happened to the Wise Men after they returned to their respective countries. We can’t say for sure whether or not they ever really understood who Jesus is. But their willingness to be called out to follow a star to find out the meaning and significance of a divine mystery should inspire us. What mysteries have called us here? How can we share them for the benefit of the whole Church?