How do you?
They went straight to Jerusalem when they arrived in Judea, knowing a special child had been born, the King: where else would he be but at Jerusalem? They weren’t expecting the response: blank looks, confusion, concern. But eventually they were brought to King Herod, who seemed to listen to them seriously. They had seen a star in the East, and had come to worship the one who had been born king. Herod was disturbed by their tale; these weren’t eccentric wanderers, people with wild imaginations. Herod could tell they were serious scholars: Magi, Wise Men. If they said they had seen this star, then they had. All he could do was to call together the Chief Priests and teachers of the law: where was the Christ to be born? Bethlehem, they answered. So Herod called the visitors to him, questioned them closely as to the timing, when they had seen the star. They had been travelling a long time, the child was no longer new born. But they would seek him out and worship. Try Bethlehem, Herod urged, for our Scriptures say that is where the child will be born. When you have found him, come and tell me, that I too might go and worship.
They left, hopeful, impressed with this seemingly wise king, yet somehow also disturbed. These were wise men, after all; they sensed something strange, something not quite right in Herod’s words. Yet they decided to make for Bethlehem, and were overjoyed to see the star ahead of them as they journeyed. The star led them to the house where the child was. Herod’s information had been correct; yet, still, something was not quite right. However, for the moment they put that to one side. Their long journey was completed; they had found the child they had searched for ever since they had seen his star so many moons ago.
Quietly, hushed, they knocked at the house, where they were led into the living space. A merry laugh reached them as the child played with his mother. Wise as they were, they could see that this was indeed the special child whose star they had seen, and that had led them to this place. They bowed down and worshipped. What that child would be, what his life would hold, they could not tell. Yet something they knew. From their riches, one brought forth a pot of gold. This child was a king, however lowly his home. Another brought forth frankincense: this child was a holy child, and incense was used in worship. Another brought out Myrrh: this child, however kingly, however holy, was destined to suffer, somehow, terribly. All he could offer was a gift to acknowledge that.
They left feeling deeply peaceful; somehow, this moment was what their entire lives had led to; all the rest had been but preparation for meeting this child. They stayed overnight in Bethlehem, but as they settled down to sleep, the uncertainty, the unsettledness that had struck them on leaving Herod returned. They had promised to go back, yet should they? and did they have any choice? They were still in Herod’s kingdom. But they would do nothing that might harm the child, or bring too early the suffering that surely lay ahead for him eventually. Late at night, when all was dark, they all woke suddenly. Quick consultation proved they had all been given the same dream. They must not go back to Herod. There was only one option: they must leave immediately, under cover of night, and be far away from this place by the time the sun rose. They must make their return journey longer by going a different route, one that took them away from Jerusalem, away from Herod, away. There was no time to warn the child’s family of possible danger (for danger they were certain of). This they would have wished; yet they were wise in the ways of their world, and trusted to the same source that warned them to also keep the child safe. By early morning they were on their way to Egypt. The wrong way home, yet the only safe way. They had left the child rich gifts; yet this last gift, of heeding their dream and taking the long way back, would be just as precious. For by the time Herod realised the strangers were not returning, the child’s family had also been warned, and were also well on their own way to Egypt.
Herod’s response was anger; furious, terrified anger. This child they had talked of was a threat. If he was the Christ, this wasn’t the time for it. Moreover, there was only room for one king in Judea, and that was him; and after him, his own sons. Herod’s anger took him in just one direction: the child must still be killed. If those strangers would not lead him directly to the child, well then. He knew the place of the child’s birth, and the time the star had appeared. He added a few months to the time, just to be certain. This child would NOT escape him, and he would teach Bethlehem to harbour rivals. He dispatched his soldiers with orders to kill all the boys under two years of age in Bethlehem and its surrounding districts. The soldiers were reluctant: they were not there to fight children. Nevertheless, Herod was their commander, and they did as he asked. They, too, did not wish for a rival king, who would endanger themselves and their families, who were firmly marked as being on Herod’s side. Most went and killed the boys: compassionately, quickly, yet terribly, as screaming children were torn from pleading mothers. Some did escape; some had warning; some ran far away. A few had taken note of the child’s family leaving, and had followed. Luckily, none of this occurred to Herod; his anger satisfied, his power safe, life returned to normal.
Whether this story is historically accurate or not is an interesting exercise, but misses the point. There is plenty of truth there, whether or not it literally happened. A quick look at the history of the past century will tell us of the lengths some people will go to hold on to their power. But primarily it is about what the church calls it: Epiphany, a revealing of the Christ child to the Magi from the East; a revealing of the Christ child to all nations; a revealing, through the gifts, of who that child is, and would be.
Yet it also leaves us with questions. What is our own attitude to power, and how far are we prepared to go to hold on to it? How deeply do we listen to our own intuitions, our own ‘stars’ that are maybe calling us to follow? How far are we prepared to follow – are we prepared to put ourselves out of our normal way for Christ? Do we truly see, recognise, who the Christ is? How often do we respond as the Magi did – in worship? (The bowing down may be less possible physically …). Whether or not Joseph took his family into exile in Egypt, the story clearly proclaims the possibility: how does that affect our own response to refugees and exiles in our own country? Do we welcome them as we would want to welcome Christ? and how would you want to welcome Christ? How do you?