“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” (Matthew 2:2)
This reading resonates with assumptions. Heck, we hear the beginning of the verses and think to ourselves, “Sure, I know this one. This is the story of the three kings.” I mean, we all know the story, right? Star of the New King. Magi from East. Herod. Directions to Bethlehem. Instructions for the Magi to go, but “ya’ll come back.” Baby Jesus. Did homage. Gifts. Dreams. Home by another way. We all know the story. Or at least we assume we know the story from Scripture.
Yes, there are three gifts, but Scripture never says there are three gift bearers. We just assume there are. But then one can argue it is not a bad assumption. Three gifts – three kings, right? Scripture never calls them “kings,” or even “wise men.” They are called magi which are definitely not kings. But they were seeking Jesus, right? Not really. Magi were dream interpreters, astrologers, fortune tellers and stargazers. In English, our term “magic” comes from the name “magi.” They were not respectable “wise men” but practioners of an art which St. Paul condemns in Acts 13:10, calling one magi – “child of the devil.” The early Jewish and Christian readers of Matthews account, the magi would represent the epitome of pagan idolatry and religious hocus-pocus. Who knows what they were looking for?
We assume there was some wisdom among them, right? I mean, after all, they spotted the star, understood its meaning and traveled many months to visit this newborn king, right? I suspect there were a lot of assumptions which went into the journey. Newborn king? Perhaps they think among themselves, “We assume that means born of the royal family in the capital city.” Not a bad assumption, right? “So, let’s start with King Herod in Jerusalem.” Well, the star got their attention, but then left to their own devices it lead them to Herod not Jesus. At this point the magi got it partly right and partly wrong. Of course, such are often the nature of assumptions.
Of course, Herod has his own assumptions. He hears news of the new Davidic King and he assumes that means there will be attempts at overthrowing the king – I mean that is how Herod got the job. So, Herod makes his own assumptions and plans to have the magi lead him to the newborn king so he can end the threat at the beginning. Left to his own experiences and insecurities, Herod got it wrong. Yet he tells the magi where to look and asks them to let him know where to find the newborn king so that he too can pay him homage. Of course, we don’t believe Herod wants to do any such thing.
The magi, they want to worship the child Messiah. Right? The text says “proskynéō” – ambiguous word; it can mean worship, bow down, respect, honor. We assume they worship, but they are not seeking a Messiah. They have come looking for a king. Perhaps they come to bow down, respect and honor. Of course, there are reasons why we start a thing and very often the reason we continue becomes something else. We cannot assume the reasons we start are the reason God plans for us to continue.
Maybe the difference between the magi and Herod is that the magi came into contact with the person of Jesus. Maybe when they arrived in the Bethlehem area they began to hear to stories from the shepherds of the angels’ announcements, heard that this king was more, this king was Messiah, Emmanuel, God who is with us. Their intention to honor became worship when they find Jesus. They came one way and they left by another way. They came as magi; it seems they left believing in something far greater.
The magi were changed. They now acted and believed in a new way, a way of grace. On this new way they discovered the king on God’s terms through God’s revelation and not through their own understanding or assumptions. God provided more than just the star. When the start took them to Jerusalem, the Scriptures revealed to them Bethlehem. Perhaps there was also the testimony of shepherds. In the end, the Word of God came to them and sent them on another way home.
It is Isaiah’s message to Jerusalem in the first reading. “Your light has come.” Now God asks them to change, to walk by a new way, a way in which the radiance from God shines out into the world and draws all nations to them. So too for us – our Light has come to illuminate the new pathway of grace. St Paul reminds us that we are to be stewards of God’s grace given to us for the benefit of others.
Each day, each Sunday, each season of grace we partly operate like Magi – on our own understanding and assumptions. We come to give homage, to worship, to bow down before God in Eucharist – and we come face-to-face with Christ as king and Messiah. And the whole journey is marked with signs, Scripture and people. All illumined with the Light of Grace. Like the magi, like the shepherds, like everyone who would come to see, to encounter Jesus, all leave changed if they will but accept the grace given.
Maybe we are to be like the shepherds and announce the Good News to those expecting a savior. Maybe we are to be like the magi, discovering not a king but a messiah and are called to return to our world and announce the good news to people who had no expectations at all. We are all called to be stewards of that grace and move past our assumptions and expectations. To rise up like Jerusalem – and by whatever path we came, leave by a new way.
Today, come to altar. Encounter Christ in the Word Proclaimed and in his precious Body and Blood. Return to your life by a new way, with new expectation, … all for a new year.