Returning Home by a Different Path
Some parts of the Christmas story are so much part of our culture that they seem embedded in very dubious un-Christian customs. This year in one Christmas cracker, I encountered the following “joke”. ” What have Bethlehem and the White House got in common?” The answer: “It would be a genuine miracle if three wise men were found in the present White House”.
But perhaps there is a little more to the original wise men story that give it its deserved place in St Matthew’s gospel..
When it comes to the records of the original event, modern theologians like John Dominic Crossan remind us that since the two major gospel accounts of the nativity raise serious points of contradiction, they are best understood as parable rather than accurate eye witness reports.
For example: who would have been on hand to record the conversations with angels as they occur in Luke? Who jotted down what the ones we now think of as the wise men, the Astrologers, said when they met Herod? And for that matter, how on earth did the stable, the animals and the wise men ever get put together in our minds in the same scene when no Bible account justifies this interpretation.
On the other hand, as parable, we learn a great deal from the stories about such matters as the connection between Christ and his humble beginnings, and the underlying significance of the coming of a different sort of king. For example in this morning’s gospel, when we see the effort that even the reputedly wise had put into finding the Christ child, this implies that we too may have to make an effort if we wish to find anything worthwhile.
Moira Laidlaw, at the time of writing, a well known minister in the Australian Uniting Church, told her own version of what turned out to be an unintended modern parable in her efforts to set up a nativity scene. In her words: the following
…… “a church on the corner of a busy road in Sydney had lots of cars passing each day so it was decided to erect an ‘Australian’ nativity scene outside where everyone could see it. The woodwork and art classes of a nearby High School made life size figures, the shepherds were transformed into drovers, and the scene included a couple of sheep, a horse and a dog. The ‘stable’ was made of corrugated iron and there was a large sign fixed centre front saying ‘Peace’. The manger was made of sturdy timber and in it a baby doll was placed on some fresh straw. It looked good and was certainly eye-catching. The first thing stolen was one of the sheep, then the sign ‘Peace’ and then, the doll representing Jesus. Another doll was found and duly installed in the manger. The next day this doll was also gone and an empty Coca-Cola bottle was left in its place. (Even that part is a parable in itself!)
A handyman who was doing odd jobs in a nearby block of units was so angry that he said if someone provided another doll, he would fix it so that it couldn’t disappear. Well, he certainly did. The minister (Moira Laidlaw) couldn’t believe her eyes when she went out to see what he had done – he had nailed a piece of timber across the ‘manger’ and he had then nailed the doll (Jesus) to this piece of wood. With the straw arranged around the doll, the wood and nails were unseen. “There you are” the carpenter said proudly, “he’ll be able to stay forever now.”!! .
And a symbolic child who must forever be constrained to stay in the manger forever is about as far as most casual passers-by will allow the saviour to intrude on their lives.
There is also the mismatch between the typical nativity tableau and what we have to contend with in the real world. In the days leading up to Christmas we may well have found a comfortable familiarity in the carols and familiar stories and images of that first Christmas but once the New Year sales arrive we might be hard put to hold to the magic.
As with each Christmas season, among the celebrations and family get-togethers, this year we note once again some harsh realities have intruded. This year seemingly unprecedented and widespread fires are devastating whole regions in Australia. Once again violence has flared in the Middle East and US troops have been dispatched to protect American interests in Iraq. Chile and Hong Kong are just two of the many places where Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all seems more ironic than real. Here in New Zealand the festive season has been marked by incidents of family violence, unnecessary road deaths and preventable drowning.
Like the wise men at the Stable we might well have turned up at Church with the notion of worshiping the Christ-child but it is back to an untransformed world we are expected to return through the Church door. Confronted with the prospects of a disturbed reality it is hard to hold to the image of a Prince of Peace in the Holy land. All this is not to say the Christ child should have no place in our reaction to such events. But wisdom and thought are still needed before we can respond appropriately.
Every Christmas we may well intend, at least in our mind’s eye, to admire and worship the baby Jesus. In practice, our symbolic encounter with the Baby and how we allow this to affect our subsequent journey and encounters with reality may be more than a little problematic.
……Which brings us to the visit of the Magi. The scholars seem reasonably agreed that Matthew was implying the Magi may well have been Persian followers of the faith called Zoroastrianism and at least from Matthew’s telling of the story the wise men seem to have been astrologers. As a scientist by training and being of a sceptical nature personally I have never been particularly enamoured of astrology, seeing it rather as a primitive and largely discredited science, but I must say that Matthew’s description of these apparently wise men blundering in their journey, and despite their certainty that they were being led by the stars, their having to seek help has a certain ring of plausibility.
For those assuming GPS accuracy from God’s guidance we might note they missed by something like 18 Km if they found themselves in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem.
When giving sermons to the public, it is customary, and even expected by many that the preacher should not to rock the boat too much by pointing to complications raised by scholars. My personal reaction to this is that hiding the complications is talking down to the listeners. I prefer to assume that those who encounter the story at any level have just as much right to the implications as those who set themselves up as teachers.
One point that often gets overlooked in post Christmas sermons about the wise men, for example is to remind the hearers (or readers) that here and elsewhere Matthew appears to have been interested in showing how gentiles might think of themselves as every bit as good as the Jews in finding the Messiah in the person of Jesus. By having the foreign gentile Persians as his wise heroes in this scene, Matthew makes this point in such a way that his readers should sub-consciously come to this conclusion for themselves. The Magi as Persians are non Jews, yet this is no barrier to them in realising the signs were pointing to an event that had escaped the local Jews.
Whether or not Matthew actually believed he was reporting this encounter of the Magi with Jesus as fact, would be hard to prove, but we might also note in passing that Matthew has totally glossed over the angels, the shepherds and the manger in his story and unlike Luke, he has the parents fleeing to Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the children instead of having the parents stay around to present the Baby Jesus to the Temple as Luke would have it.
As parable however it is a thought provoking story. The three gifts brought by the wise men for example have great significance. In those days it was assumed that stars were associated with the birth of the great ones. The Magi also came into some of those stories. Gold was the gift which was required for a king. For example, Seneca tells us that in Parthia there was a rule that no one was allowed to approach the king unless they were to bring a gift which was usually expected to be gold. Frankincense, the second gift, was a gift fit for a priest. It was in the Temple that frankincense (the expensive perfume of the day) was to be used in ceremonies involving sacrifice.
William Barclay reminds us that the Latin word for priest was Pontifex meaning bridge builder, with the notion that the priest was the bridge between God and humankind. Identifying Jesus as a priest with the symbolic gift underlined his bridge building function. Myrrh, the third gift, was the gift for one who was to die. Myrrh, again expensive, was the preferred embalming oil for those whose bodies were considered to have significance. Here the Magi gift anticipated the death of Jesus.
For me the wisdom of the wise men in Matthew’s tale was far more that their wisdom in reading the signs and showing Jesus’ significance by the nature of their gifts. There was also a reported common-sense practicality in their thinking. They understood their limitations in their star gazing and sought help. They understood the potential menace in Herod’s attitude and did not follow through on acceding to his request to tell him where the child lay.
There is one small phrase at the end of the story which has particular significance for me. “They returned home to their country by a different way”. They had encountered the Christ child and they understood that as a consequence things were now different.
As a post script to the story a few years back I once commissioned a carved wooden sign to be placed over the doorway of one of the two churches where I happened to be stationed. The wording of the sign was: “Enter to worship – Go out to Serve”.
I honestly believe that what we learn in what we encounter in worship should make a difference to our subsequent actions. Like the wise men in the story perhaps we too should now reconsider what we have seen and if necessary return home by a different path.