The Three Wise Men are here. They are surely the most eccentric part of the story, adding exotic style to the manger scene, which was a believable tale of a hard time faced by poor people, until these magical kings showed up. Obviously, they are the ones with the coolest costumes, scarlet silks, fur caps, and they have camels. When I was a child, appearing in Christmas pageants, year after year I was a woolly sheep, or a scrubbed-clean angel, and my sister was a shepherd in our mother’s blue bathrobe. But what we really wanted to be (and tragically, never got to be), were the Wise Men in their gorgeous finery, with some sort of ersatz, improvised camel alongside. We look forward to their coming, on Twelfth Night. Some of us make a cake to mark the end of the Christmas season. But what are they doing there? There must be some reason, beyond making the story more exciting. The celebration of their arrival is called the Epiphany. Epiphany means revelation or manifestation, something being shown. The appearance of the Three Kings begins the revelation of the news about Christ to the Gentiles. We hear a lot about the Gentiles in the New Testament; they are often disparaged, so that you might think Gentiles means bad people, but in fact it only means all of the people who are not Jews. Those who first heard about Jesus were members of the family of Abraham, the people of the Covenant: Mary and Joseph and their family, the shepherds, even the innkeepers. These three men, whether they were really kings or astrologers or both, whether they really got there while the family were still in Bethlehem or sometime later, they were the first people from the rest of the world, to witness Jesus’ incarnation. Why is that important?
If Jesus was just a wisdom teacher, giving us an example of a good life, why do we make such a big fuss about the revelation to the Gentiles? The other cultures of the world have wisdom teachers who interpret their traditions and reform them. The peoples of the world are perfectly aware of how to live a good life, they have ethical and moral codes that have shaped their civilizations, evolving to suit their circumstances of history and geography. If that is all that Jesus is, then there is no point in making him known to them, and it’s actually kind of patronizing, to say he’s the best wisdom teacher, what makes his teaching any better than that of Confucius or Buddha, who certainly also advocated kindness and self-sacrifice? There must be some reason, other than a kind of nationalistic pride in our man, for the news of his birth to be meaningful, not just to those around him, but to these visitors from far away.
The presence of the Wise Men is a statement, from the very beginning of the story, of Jesus’ divinity. The mere fact that they are there means that he is different. He is not simply reminding those he met to lead better lives, as countless other men and women have done, in every time and place. Jesus comes to make something new and different possible for everyone, universally. He is making an offer, not just of the very best way of living your life, because there are lots of good ways, and they shape they take is culturally dependent. Jesus is making an offer of relationship to God. And it’s not a relationship based on getting good grades on the behavioural code. It’s based on love alone.
The Magi are the strangers in the scene, on purpose. There is a point to those spectacular clothes, not what we’re used to, not what we had in the closet. They are here to show us that strangers are welcome, in this place. Their incongruent, brilliant colours practically shout the question, what are they doing here? Which begs the question, if we think about it, why should we be here? It wasn’t our story, or our people, for most of us. Not many of us, probably, are descended from the tribes of the ancient Middle East. Our ancestors wandered to North America from all over the world, probably without ever having walked beside the Sea of Galilee. But we are welcome, just as those first strangers were. Not just welcome, because they didn’t just stumble in, did they, bored tourists seeking a more interesting evening than the open bar at the annual astrology convention. They were more than welcome, they were invited, summoned, by a star set in the heavens for this purpose. Called, just as we are called.
What are we being invited for? It’s not a comfortable thing. Forgiveness. We live in a society in which, as Tish Harrison Warren writes, everything is permitted, and nothing is forgiven. Think of the barrenness of that. We inhabit a world of disposable connections, disposable selves. You can walk away from any relationship anytime, and invent or buy another self. There is no need for forgiveness, if you don’t have to stick around, if you’re not beholden to anyone. This, what we do here, is all about restoring relationship, because it’s not a thing to throw away. We are not things God wants thrown away. How hard that is to believe, for us. It must be, given the way we treat ourselves and others. What all of this is meant to do is address the need, our need, to come back to something that lasts, and say sorry, for things we can’t escape, and ask to be taken in. It is the hardest thing in the world, for a proud people like us, stubborn humanity. And yet something in that promise, the promise of return, of finding the prodigal son’s welcome home, calls to us, calls us from every corner of the globe, so that we stand, too, at the dark edges of the scene, and wait, for the light to enfold us.