Greetings, SBT Readers!
On impulse, I stopped at an old-established neighborhood bakery today, just to see what delights it had to offer. I had no intention of buying anything as I am now on a much-needed post-Christmas fitness track, but upon entering, I smelled temptation -- the rich aroma of home made bread, cakes and pastries. That's when I saw the King Cake, an enormous circular cake oozing brightly colored jams and frosted in purple, gold and green. No, the cake didn't fit into my dietary plans, but even as I left the bakery empty-handed, I found myself wondering who would find the plastic Infant Jesus that had been folded into the batter.
Symbolizing the Three Kings' discovery of the Christ Child, the plastic figure brings blessings to whoever finds it; it also brings the responsibility of providing the next King Cake to the next gathering. Blessings and responsibilities, sweetness and obligation -- perhaps this is was the experience of the Magi. Having tasted the fullness of God's presence in the sweetest of moments, they now had to return home burdened by that Word they were called to proclaim. May we, too, pause in Bethlehem, there to savor all we have seen and heard; then, like the Magi, may we return to those places still in need of God's saving Light....
Link to the Sunday Readings
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
On a symbolic level, the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke parallel events in the Hebrew scriptures while reflecting the theology of the early Christian faith community. As Raymond Brown points out in his tome, The Birth of the Messiah, the evangelists did not intend us to read these stories as "history" but rather as statements of faith about the divine nature of the man Jesus. Through their narratives, Matthew and Luke guide us into a universe of improbabilities which reflect how the Birth disturbed the universe, shattering assumptions, turning expectations upside down, reversing fortunes, toppling the proud while lifting up the lowly. Parallels between such stories as Sarah's conception of Isaac and Elizabeth's conception of John the Baptist, or Pharaoh's murder of the Hebrew first-born and Herod's massacre of the Innocents, or the Patriarch Joseph's ability to interpret dreams and Mary's spouse Joseph's willingness to let his dreams guide him are by no means coincidental; on the contrary, the familiar themes help us see Jesus as the fulfillment of ancient longings. His "story" fits into the framework of older stories, thereby providing continuity between the two Testaments. We are on familiar ground and yet the Gospel accounts invite us to suspend disbelief and to be amazed at the Good News of the Incarnation.
How, then, can we approach the much-loved story of the Magi? Whether we read Matt 2:1-12 literally or symbolically, the narrative leads us to kneel in adoration before the Incarnate Christ: we search; we behold; we believe. Scripture tells us that while God "broke through" the ordinariness of shepherd life to wake up the shepherds and present them with the gift of the newborn King, the Magi had a different kind of Epiphany. For them, there was no angelic message to hasten them on their way; nor was there a quick trudge from the hills of Bethlehem to the manger. Instead, the Magi engaged in lengthy study, not only pouring over prophetic texts but also reading celestial phenomena to discover exactly where the Holy Child would be born. Then, once convinced that they had pinpointed the general area where the Birth was to take place, they set out with their gifts, most likely following trade routes from northwest Persia (present day Iran) towards Jerusalem -- a distance of more than 700 miles.
As spiritual seekers, we are like both the shepherds and the Magi. There are times when God breaks through our slumber, gifting us with the ability to see beyond the material universe. Angelic voices resound around us and we see the glory of the Holy One in the midst of the most ordinary and messy of circumstances. There is no effort required on our part, but only the willingness to open our eyes and SEE the glory of the Cosmic Christ-- a glory that scatters the darkness and transforms us with its light. Conversely, the journey of the Magi invites us to leave behind familiar territory to head into the unknown. It is an uncomfortable journey that demands letting go of everything we have taken for granted so that God can lead us from "unknowing" into knowledge --that is, into knowledge of that Love that took on human flesh that we might become divine. To know God is to love God and that is precisely why the Magi beckon us to follow that Star to Bethlehem...
+ + +