It’s the final day of Christmas. The magi following the star to pay homage to the child Jesus may not seem like the climax of the Advent-Christmas experience, but it is. The revelation of this holy season isn’t the birth of Jesus. The revelation is the confirmation of his identity.
There are a lot of things about the magi we can focus on. We can focus on their profession and where they’re from. We can focus on the planetary science behind the star. We can even focus on the gifts they brought. But what I find compelling is their response.
Matthew tells us in his gospel that these men from the east observed a star rising in the sky. They knew the star signified the birth of a king, specifically the king of the Jews. How they knew this we don’t know. We can speculate and research the scholarship on the matter, but we still really don’t know. We know only what Matthew tells us: they saw a star, they rounded up their camels, and they hit the road for Jerusalem bearing gifts for this newly-born king of the Jews.
We also don’t know why they made the detour to see Herod. We only know that they did. This news frightened Herod and “all Jerusalem with him.” Herod called together all his experts, including the Jewish leaders whom he tolerated, to gather as much information as he could. Then he called back the magi for a second conversation to compare the information he got from his experts with the information these outsiders brought.
Herod, being the despicable person he was, told the magi an bold-faced lie. He told them to come back with information on where this child was so he could also pay homage to him. We learn later just how threatened he really was and to what extent he would go to assure himself that there were no threats to his throne.
We also learn that the magi continued on to Bethlehem, to the house where Jesus and his parents were staying. Matthew tells us “they were overwhelmed with joy … and they knelt down and paid him homage.” They also presented him with the gifts they brought with them.
After their visit, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for home by another route. Sort of reminds you of Joseph and his dream, doesn’t it? Just like Joseph, the act on their dream as though it were real too.
Sometimes, when I’m trying to discern the meaning of a biblical passage, I look at the verbs. Asking, observed, came, pay homage, frightened, search, find, set out, stopped, knelt, offered, warned, left. These are all the action verbs Matthew uses in this passage. There’s a progression from wonder, to belief, to action, to confirmation, to response.
Although the magi follow a completely different belief system, the signs they see through the window of their own religious worldview compel them to consider and respond to the beliefs of this other faith tradition. They see that the divine in this child is not only present, but powerful. Seeing Jesus for themselves confirms he is of whom the prophets spoke. They experience something real and joyful. They respond by kneeling in worship.
The magi offer a wonderful close to the Advent and Christmas seasons. They are the first outsiders who experience and respond to Jesus as a divine presence in the world. It is confirmation that his power frightens those in worldly power. If Jesus can be revealed as Lord to leaders of other religious traditions, then he can be revealed to anyone. His birth is a marvelous gift. What, then, can we say about his life?