I rarely drive places these days. Do you remember places? I do. I recall that lovely feeling of finding my way from one place to another, the knowledge that comes from discovering which roads go where, what side streets and boulevards will pick me up and spit me out at precisely the right intersection. Sometimes, on Sundays, when both Erin and I needed to drive separately to church, I would get to leave for home when she did, and there was always this perverse pleasure in being able to beat her home, to arrive by routes not picked by Siri or Google, and to slip into the garage before she did. The competition was entirely of my own devising, and yet, when she beat me home, I had to know – which way did she go?
I admit, it may seem like a strange place to begin, but this morning what holds my attention most in the gospel lesson is this final word from the evangelist, Matthew, about the Magi’s encounter with Jesus. He writes, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Other translations put it slightly differently, “so they returned home by another way.” It makes me wonder what the other road was? Which way did they choose?
It is hard not to be captivated by this story. Tradition has added much, and there has been endless speculation – were these wise men, these Magi, were they kings or wealthy soothsayers? Were they astronomers or astrologers? So much is mysterious and really untold in the gospel account. We know they came from the East, but from where? Just over the hill in Syria or further still from Persia, or beyond into India? Wherever they began, we know that a journey was involved. They had to plan and prepare, likely for all kinds of possibilities. After all, they were following a heavenly body, a star we are told, and where it would lead they could not know. It is strange, then, given their supposed wisdom, that they enter the story in Jerusalem, some 9 or 10 miles from their actual destination of Bethlehem. While they could not know exactly where the star was leading, they had to know they were not yet there. Why then do they detour into Jerusalem? Why not press on in the direction they’d been headed? Why go that way?
They had to know that this was a place of power, the seat of the current king, that to be wandering around talking about a new king was bound to raise the ire and fear of the current one. Frederick Buechner narrates their encounter with Herod, adding color in the way only a preacher and a storyteller can:
“’Go and find me the child,’ the king told us, and as he spoke, his fingers trembled so that the emeralds rattled together like teeth. ‘Because I want to come and worship him,’ he said, and when he said that, his hands were still as death. Death. I ask you, does a man need the stars to tell him that no king has ever yet bowed down to another king? He took us for children, that sly, lost old fox, and so it was like children that we answered him. ‘Yes, of course,’ we said, and went our way. His hands fluttered to his throat like moths.”
I cannot say, nor can anyone definitively, what it is that lured the wise men into Jerusalem, what ambitions or ulterior motives pushed them off course, why they alerted the powers that be of their little quest. I can say that it provides us with a much needed comparison. If the story of Jesus is the introduction of a new king, a messianic leader, into the hearts and imaginations of the world, it certainly provides a definitive contrast to the existing powers that be. Let us not forget that Herod was a tyrant and a despot, that he held his power by the grace of Rome. Let us not forget the Holy Innocents, the thousands of children he slaughtered when learning this news of a new King’s birth from the Magi. Let us not forget that worldly power seeks to control and to dominate by any means necessary. Let us not forget that the way of the world is a way riddled with vanity and violence.
We know this to be true, and we can see it in all its ugliness if we only look at the history books, to the stories of Herod and Caesar, or if we look to the news headlines, to the leaders of our world today. But, the gospel rarely dwells long on the old ways. Matthew is here to tell us something new, about the way of Jesus. Such a way, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry tells us, is the Way of Love. When love is the way, says Curry,
“unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive …then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. …poverty would become history…When love is the way, we will lay our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty of room for all of God’s children.”
Such a way might seem altogether like pie in the sky, naive and unwise. After all, we have seen time and again when the hopers and dreamers, the ones driven by love, go toe to toe with the powers of this world. Death. Death is what happens. T.S. Eliot in his poem on the magi concludes,
“This: were we led all the way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
…I had seen birth and death.
But had thought they were different; this birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
The story of the magi is the story of a transformative encounter. They arrive by paths unknown from a world of ambition, of power and wealth, to arrive at the foot of a child, Jesus, a peasant, a nobody, really. And the encounter marks their lives in such a profound way that they cannot betray him. They cannot but leave by a different road, a new way.
Such is the promise of the Incarnation, that things sublime and things divine have come to us in what is earthen and humble and plain – that God is made known to us, revealing the divine life, but also exposing what it truly means to be human. The revelation of the Incarnation, the great epiphany of this moment, is that the way to be human has little to do with power and ambition, about who or what we can control, about that little or large space of the world we can have dominion over. The way to be human is about vulnerability, about the courage to share ourselves, our true selves with others, about revealing our struggles and our triumphs, our losses and our loves with those near us. So, in this way, death is present in the Incarnation because death is a natural part of life. But, it is also present because of what else has to die in order to truly live.
Last week Barbara brought up Star Trek when reflecting on the gospel, and this week my mind was drawn to the other famous universe, or a “galaxy far far away”, to Star Wars, and the new show The Mandalorian. In it, and I apologize if this is a bit of a spoiler for those who haven’t yet watched, the story unfolds the world of Mandalor, a planet whose inhabitants, warriors, live by an ancient code. With the destruction of their homeland, these Mandalorians now roam the galaxy as rogues, mercenaries, and assassins, still bound by their code. And a piece of this code is that they must never, under any circumstances, show their face to the world. Their helmets and masks must remain on at all times, preventing them from forming real friendships and relationships, from exposing their truest selves. At some point in this most recent season, the star of the show, THE Mandalorian, who has formed a bond with a young child, a being of the same race as the now famous Yoda, named Grogu, is on a quest to rescue this child from his evil captors. The Mandalorian faces a decision point. A computer must read his face in order to reveal essential information that will lead him to find the captive child. The Mandalorian loves Grogu, this much is apparent as the show progresses. But, will he violate the code, what the Mandalorians call “The Way”, and reveal his face in public, for love of the child?
Nothing echoes more the themes of this morning’s gospel lesson. Will we, for pride and vanity, for our need to control and dominate, will we hide what is essential and human, what is vulnerable, or will we choose a new way, the way of Jesus, the way of love?
With a new year, we are shown again this truth that all our journeys, all our ways lead through struggle and challenge – 2020 has made this abundantly clear – but, as theologian Karl Rahner says, these paths can also each be their own journey to God, a “pilgrimage to the absolute”. He writes, “you will lose much on the way. Let it go. Gold of love, incense of yearning, myrrh of suffering – these you certainly have with you. He shall accept them. And we shall find him.” And, once we have found him, we will discover that another way home is possible, a way in the world defined by love, by sacrifice and self-giving. As Buechner concludes, “I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him is the only life?” This, my friends, is the way – to find Jesus, “who humbled himself to share our humanity” who restores our human nature and in him to find our truest, most God-given selves. Amen.