In a series of three meetings last Advent, we were considering different aspects of the story given in today’s gospel: the journey of the wise men to see the newborn king of the Jews. The meetings were pretty interesting and a bit controversial a couple of times – someone even told me that I had ruined their Christmas. My guilt is certain – and I’m proud of it. My goal for those meetings was to discover genuine, probable events hidden among all the ornaments added to them and blown out of proportion by story-tellers; and, as such, it was then included in the gospel. To a certain extent I was in fact breaking down the story, stripping it bare of all the mysterious stuff, and therefore presenting it as a rather ordinary though slightly unusual event.
Biblical stories were told in a particular manner for two main reasons, usually complementing each other. The first reason was to pass on a particular message; the second one was to catch and to hold the listeners’/readers’ attention. Think about your teachers in the past, or (perhaps this is a bit risky) preachers over the years. Some of them were good, some of them were boring. The former were able to engage their audience, the latter didn’t manage to do so, though both might have had similar knowledge.
In the story of the wise men there are some elements probable to the minds of people two thousand years ago, with their massively limited scientific knowledge. But those elements, like a star hanging above the house and pointing at it cannot be taken seriously at their face value now, when we know that stars are massive objects looking small just because they are so distant from our planet. Sticking to the literal description of the story is laughable, but those decorative improbabilities don’t make the message of the story untrue. Here is my version of that chain of events.
The wise men were probably priests of Zarathustra, a cult with a particular inclination towards astrology. They might have heard stories from their Hebrew neighbours in Babylon, and interpreted some particular heavenly phenomenon as a sign of prophecies being fulfilled, so they headed off to Jerusalem. They didn’t follow any particular star, but were going to the capital city, where a newborn king was supposed to be. They couldn’t find him there so they asked about him, and were directed to Bethlehem, where they found the boy and his mother. It seems that they stayed in Bethlehem overnight, and then returned to their home country while avoiding a further encounter with King Herod.
St Matthew in his gospel presented Jesus as the new Moses, fulfilling all the prophecies and sent not only to the people of Israel, but beyond. The story of the wise men, visiting the baby boy, was told by him to show that Jesus came to the whole world from the very beginning, and that his call was universal. It was a really important and pretty uneasy message to the Christian communities of Jewish origin, used to thinking about themselves as a Chosen Nation. That particular message became irrelevant later on with an overwhelmingly non-Jewish contingent of believers, and – dare I say – it’s a bit irrelevant for us here and now.
For me personally, the story of today’s gospel is about looking for the ultimate by using all available means. The wise men found Jesus by following their ‘scientific’ knowledge, making the effort to travel, asking people who knew better, and eventually finding their objective in an ordinary family. For me it’s a simple message that God can be overlooked by those looking for spectacular events, but can be found in simple things. And that’s something really comforting.