Three Old Sinners, Just Like Us
“At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners,
That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners,
and miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
But have only the vaguest idea of why we are what we are.
To discover how to be human now
is the reason we follow the star.”
— W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being, a Christmas Oratorio"
If most people had to choose which of the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy they preferred, they would choose Luke, because that’s where the coolest things happen. It starts with all that crazy stuff about Mary’s cousin Elizabeth getting pregnant even though she’s too old to do so; moves to the Angel Gabriel announcing the birth to Mary and her exultant song about it; shows Mary and Joseph trudging into Bethlehem, not being able to find a place to stay, winding up giving birth in a barn; and concludes with the heavenly glee club appearing to a bunch of shepherds, of all people. Yep; when people think about the Christmas story it’s Luke’s version they think about.
By comparison, the story in Matthew’s Gospel is less triumphant, more violent, and harder to understand. It starts with the quiet drama of Joseph’s dream about not setting Mary aside. It concludes with the horrifying story of the slaughter of the innocents. And in the middle are those crazy guys, the Magi.
Although the Magi show up in most of our tellings of the Christmas event, we always get their story wrong. Essentially what we do is cut and paste them out of Matthew into the Luke story, having them show up on the night of Jesus birth along with the shepherds. But when you actually read Matthew, you see that they didn’t arrive just as Jesus was being born; they got there months, and quite possibly as much as two years, afterward. That means, of course, that their arrival wasn’t part of the story of Jesus’ birth at all. No, they drug into town after Jesus had been around a while, when the miracle of his birth had long since worn off and Mary and Joseph were exhausted parents of an infant or toddler.
And that whole thing about them being wise men? What is so wise about leaving your homes to trek across the desert with only the vaguest notion of what it is you’re looking for? What is so wise about going to Herod, that brutal old reprobate, to ask about where the new king was supposed to be born? What was so wise about showing up to a baby shower with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, when what Mary and Joseph really needed were a whole bunch of diapers?
No, from where I sit, the Magi have only one thing going for them, one reason why, on Epiphany, we read their story and remember them. They, like we, have taken the long expected journey of Advent. They, like we, have lived through the miracle of the birth of God Incarnate. And they, like we, stand now on the brink of bleak January still sinners, still uncertain, and yet . . . still seeking. Every year we arrive at Epiphany having thought that this year, this time, the Christmas season would magically transform us, bringing about peace on earth and peace in our hearts. Yet this twelfth night comes and we find ourselves no different than we ever were; no more loving, no more wise, no more certain of what it was that we were looking for in the first place. And it is in this state that we discover ourselves ready to meet the Christ child – who, in the end, is the one who finds us.
In many ways, Epiphany is the anti-climax of the Christmas season. By the time we get to January 6 the holiday has come and gone; we are, basically, sick of Christmas. All the false good cheer and phony happy feelings have long since evaporated. The magic, in other words, has worn off. But the truth of the incarnation is that God comes and meets us in the nitty-gritty, the down and dirty realities of life on this sad little ball of mud. We remember the Magi on Epiphany because, having shown up long after all the miraculous stuff was over, they discover the genuine miracle: a God who comes to us and abides with us just where we are and as we are. God grant us eyes to see this miracle as they saw it.