When I was younger, a question that troubled me was, quite how a star could indicate so exactly which house or stable the Christ child had been born in, so as to ensure that the wise men went to the right door. Remember this was before Sat Navs and the What 3 Words app.
When the film, “The life of Brian” came out, I realised that I wasn’t the only one puzzled by this. It tells the story of a man born in Bethlehem around 4 BC, hailed as a religious leader during a brief ministry in his 30s, and then crucified by the Romans. His name was Brian Cohen, and he shouldn’t be confused with someone in similar circumstances at the same time around whom a major world religion grew up, although in the film they started in mangers in next door stables.
The film opens with three wise men from the orient arriving in a stable to bestow gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh on a newborn baby. But they mistakenly give gifts to Brian’s mother whose name is Mandy. In a scene reminiscent of the account of Jesus’ birth in the gospel of Matthew, though Matthew doesn’t record a mishap whereby the magi accidentally bestow their gifts on Terry Jones in a dress. As for non-biblical first century sources, they too are curiously silent on that matter.
The Magi soon realise their mistake and move on to bow down before the Christ child next door. Don’t you think the magi were lucky to get that far after cheekily asking a grossly insecure character like King Herod, “Where is the king of the Jews? We have come to worship him”? Not very tactful
I wonder if Matthew, somewhere in the back of his mind, saw a comic element in this story. They were magi—astrologers: non-Jews who study the world using non-approved practices are the ones who find the Christ child, while the religious scholars missed it. All this speaks of a God very determined to be found.
So a Libran, a Pisces, and a Taurus bow down to worship Jesus—a Capricorn? This story points to what for some religious people might be a rather difficult truth – God might just be found outside the church, at night, in the arts, or in non-sacred music or literature, even within other religions?
The wise men appear. With a star as their guide, they show up on the scene enquiring of the one born “king of the Jews”. “Epiphany” means “to show up”. The star appears “at it’s rising” beckoning this group of Persian academics to make an appearance in Bethlehem. An astrological phenomenon “shows up” so that the magi may “show up”. They’re to “traverse afar” and pay homage to one who’s greater than they are. Unlike Herod who acts out of insecurity, the magi journey onwards in trust and curiosity.
Notice the tantalizing ending: “They left for their own country by another road”. Of course they did. But having met the Christ child, do they keep plodding along the same old pathways? T.S. Eliot ended his poem about the magi with
“We returned to our places … but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”.T. S. Eliot “The Journey of the Magi“
So T. S. Eliot didn’t think so.
Anyway the wise men return “to their own country by another road”. They’re religious teachers, interested in religious questions. They spend their lives studying religion. They may or may not live religious lives but in the main they talk about it and make their living from it.
So they probably went back home, wrote about the things that they’d seen and heard and published it. Maybe, later they gave talks about it to the Women’s Institute in Baghdad or presented papers about it at the World Congress on Comparative Religion in Islamabad or appeared on Samarkand Radio providing expert analysis of what had come to pass. Those are the sort of things professional wise men would do.
But what about the shepherds? They’re just ordinary people, not religious professionals. Like most ordinary people they don’t think about religion all the time, they’re too busy earning a living or enjoying the small amount of spare time that they have.
Maybe they’re impressed or perhaps made uneasy by the sense that there was something going on here that they ought to be paying attention to, because it’s mysteriously important. It would be nice to think that at least one of them was permanently affected by what happened that night and even that he might have stood grieving, with a small group of other people at Calvary some 33 year later. That his life was changed by the babe he saw born the night he watched in the fields above Bethlehem. I would like to think that, but it probably wasn’t true for many of them.
More likely what happened it what happens year after year to most of us. After the temporary excitement and charm of the Christmas season, we go back to ‘normal’. There is no lasting change. Bethlehem is nice once a year, but there are too many other things going on for it to make a lasting change.
But why is that so? After all we aren’t talking about something of harmless and irrelevant interest suitable only for enthusiastic nerds. We’re talking about the action and presence of Almighty God. The God whom, one day, perhaps sooner rather than later we will come face to face with in unavoidable finality. So why is it easy to avoid this reality?
The answer is simple. Is there anything quite so helpless as a new-born baby? Except perhaps : a man nailed to a cross. Yet this is how God comes to us; in helplessness. He doesn’t seek to overpower us or force His attentions on us. But why? It’s because He wants us to recognise Him through our own free choice; and because He’s so quiet, it’s easy to overlook Him.
Day after day He lays before us quiet and undemanding signs of His presence, wanting us to hang around long enough to read them and recognise Him and go to Him at last. Most of the time, we don’t notice, we rush on past headlong towards the goals that we’ve set ourselves.
Maybe this year will be different – well of course it is in so many ways. Maybe, just maybe, the forced reduction in social gatherings and many of our leisure pursuits, might just slow us down enough to notice what the God who comes to us is saying in those signs of His presence. Will this Christmas season prove to be an awakening, a moment of recognition, a life-changing experience?
I wonder what will happen to each of us after Christmas? Will it be the academic, the poetic, the ordinary normality or will be it be something else, wrapped up in the mystery of God and His incarnation?