The Wisdom of following a Star

December 28, 2008

Glynn Cardy

Christmas 1     Isaiah 61:10-62:3     Luke 2:22-40


Three Kings came riding from far away,

Melchior and Caspar and Balthazar;

Three Wise Men out of the East were they,

And they traveled by night and they slept by day,

For their guide was a beautiful, wonderful star…

Henry Wadsorth Longfellow


The exotic entrance of the mysterious Magi adds colour and class to the manger scene. Our imaginations are fired. We love to conceive the wise ones, adorned in sparkly splendour, riding the hills on humps, then alighting to offer their obscure gifts to the wee babe.


Have you ever wondered why they were called “wise”? You don’t hear, for example, about the wise shepherds, or wise angels, or the wise Mary or Joseph? Why are the Magi considered to have a monopoly on wise?


By faith they were Zoroastrians – worshippers of the god of light, Ahura Mazda. They believed that every great person had a guiding light in heavens, which appeared as a star; and the greater the person, the brighter the star. So when they supposedly saw this great star out west, it’s no wonder they went looking.


Being religious is no guarantee of being wise. Indeed often religion can bring its own form of ignorance. Faith, however, is about risk. These Zoroastrians dropped whatever they were doing and ventured forth across the borders of race, culture, and religion. That took great courage.


Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.


By culture and race they were Iraqi or Iranian. They probably would have been incarcerated for a couple of years if they’d come knocking at New Zealand’s door, especially when they told their story. “You followed a star?... yeah right.” Foreigners are often the subject of fear, suspicion, and hostility. It was no different in Jesus’ day.


Stars are not like neon-lit helicopters hovering a couple of kilometres above the ground. The nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.1 light years away. So, the notion of the star stopping over the Bethlehem stable is an intuitive notion at best. It is a hunch, a feeling. The Magi’s quest was not so much about eying a star in the sky, but rather seeing with the inner eye, the eye of imagination, mystery, and wonder. It was about trusting their feelings.


Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.


There is no indication in the Bible that the Magi were converts to Judaism or Christianity. They were strangers to the culture and religion of Jesus was foreign to them. Yet they were generously prepared to acknowledge that God, that extraordinary and mystifying presence, could exist outside their borders. They realized they didn’t have a monopoly on God. There was more, beyond their reach, beyond their horizons.


Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.


Every religion, like every culture, has a strong conservative element. It wants to keep things as they are, stable and predictable. God is co-opted as the one who provides stability and predictability. God becomes a parochial deity, captured like air in a balloon, and blown to the size of people’s expectations.


Yet right at the beginning of the Jesus story we have these Magi who come from outside, deliver their gifts, and return to the outside never to be heard of again. They come and go. The balloon of self-imposed theological and cultural isolation is popped.


This would be the story of Jesus’ life – crossing borders of class, race, and gender to be with people who were different and despised. Pricking the consciences, egos, and closed minds of those about him. Is it any wonder that the Church created the Magi story after encountering Jesus?


The Magi almost blew it. They went looking for a newborn king in a palace. Logical I suppose. “Excuse me Mr Herod Sir, great wondrous bloated brute that you are. We’re looking for a baby king. Had any kids you know of lately? No? Oh. Are there any other kings around here? No? Oh. Do we like out heads attached to our necks? Hmmm. Yes. Would you excuse us a moment please?


Apart from the obvious comedy there is also a lesson about wisdom. Contrary to popular opinion, the wise do make mistakes. They do blow it. The difference however between the wise and the rest, is that the wise keep going. They don’t let discouragement deflate them. Confusing power with wisdom, as the Magi did, is a common mistake. Yet they kept going, kept opening themselves to the unexpected, kept pushing on...


Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.


Compare the Magi, for a moment, with the shepherd story. The shepherds are told everything. An extremely talkative angel encounters them on a hillside, and gives them all the details: where the child is, how to get there, and who will be there. When the shepherds arrive at the manger, the angel appears again to verify the place [This is it guys! That’s a baby]. And when the shepherds return home they are guided by a whole gang of serenading angels.


So these shepherds have no doubts, no questions, no problems, no persecutors, and no mystery. They didn’t have to seek information. It was handed to them: faith on a plate.


This is not, by and large, our experience. The easy-come, easy-go shepherds are not for us. Our experience is more like the struggling Magi. We, like them, are searchers. We have difficulty with the large questions of life. We are harassed by our modern Herods who seek to destroy our children and our souls with consumerism, greed, and indifference. We worry about terrorism, AIDS, death, poverty, and war. Yes, we too would like heavenly messengers and divine assurances such as the shepherds got, but the fact is that we experience neither. No, no doubt about it, it’s the Magi – the struggling band crossing a hot desert without a cold beer in sight – that resonate with us. They’re our kind of people. The kind who struggle with their faith.


The bottom line is that the Magi were searchers and so are we. Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.

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