“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.” These are the words of the prophet Isaiah, who survived exile in Babylon, who will go on in that prophecy to talk about darkness, about thick darkness covering the people, and nations coming to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Isaiah, how ever many centuries before the birth of Christ, proclaims the abundance, the wealth of the nations brought forth, about…a multitude of camels?..., about bringing gold and frankincense.
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.
Today, this text of prophecy is tied to the story we watched our children tell in our pageant, the story we sang about as we began our worship this morning, the story we celebrate today. It’s a story so familiar in the annual telling of it, that I wonder how much we realize is actually strange and unknown.
They weren’t Christians, after all. We know that, at least, because it wasn’t a thing yet. And they weren’t Jews. Our narrative tells us there were three, but whether they were kings or wise men or tarot-card-reading pagan stargazers, we’re not sure. It tells us they came from the East, which ancient people saw as the place of wisdom, the place from which the sun rises. The truth is, we don’t know. We don’t know that there were three, or even that they were men – though that seems likely, given the time and the travel. Scripture tells us there were three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, gifts they gave in homage as they knelt before a newborn king; perhaps three gifts made three people offering them an easy equation. The Venerable Bede, that earliest historian, would name them, many hundreds of years later, when he sought to build a scaffold of this story: Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar. Others would add exotic birthplaces for each: Persia, India, Babylon.
Through the millennia, we’ve built story and custom around a journey of many days, some say even a couple years. But again, we don’t know exactly when, or how long it took them, to see the star, check the prophecy, find the others, chart the journey, meet a jealous and frightened king, complete the trip, kneel down before a child and his mother, and, finally, pay attention to a dream which told them to go home another way.
What we do know is that they were different. These magi were from someplace else. We know they had access to wealth and power. And we know they had seen something real.
They came from a different place – whether Persia or India or Babylon or all of those places. They spoke different languages, ate different kinds of food, practiced different customs.
And whatever it was, this was not a day trip. The magi had to decide to go, they had to figure out where and how and by which road (if one even existed for them), they had to pack up that multitude of camels. And can you imagine the explanation to curious, and perhaps scornful, family and friends? It reminds me a little bit of what Noah must have had to say to his neighbors as he built a great big boat in his dry back yard. But for these magi, instead: “Well, I’m taking these camels and some gold, because I’ve seen a star…uh…over that way. So I’m going to greet a newborn king. And no. I won’t be home for dinner.”
It cost them something, this journey. It cost the magi something in terms of provision, this more-than-a-day-trip-but-we-don’t-know-actually-how-long trek that it was. It cost them in food and lodging for themselves and their multitude of camels and whatever and whomever else they had to bring along. It cost them money in trade for safe passage along the way, no doubt. And, no doubt, it also cost them something in reputation and credibility. We know for sure that these magi were different than the people they came to see. But the fact of the journey itself made them different as well from those they left, in order to make it. As the poet T.S. Eliot imagines, “with…voices singing in (their) ears, saying that this was all folly.”
People paid attention to the magi, though. However strange, however different they might have been, people noticed them. “We observed his star at its rising,” the magi said as they arrived at Jerusalem. “We have come to pay homage to the child born king of the Jews.” Well. That caught the interest of Herod, who considered himself the one with that title. Scripture tells us he was frightened. Scripture tells us that all Jerusalem was frightened right along with him.
So Herod did what people in authority do, when that authority seems to be threatened. He called together a council of all the important people in town: the chief priests, the scribes, called them to meet together with the magi following their star. And in the midst of all those people, Herod asked: “Where, exactly, are you going?”
“Bethlehem of Judea,” the magi responded, using the words of the prophet, “For you, Bethlehem…are by no means least…”
We know that Herod was actually so frightened by those words, and by the people who spoke them, that once the big meeting was over he called for them again. This time was no fancy council, but a conversation, in secret. “Bring me word, when you find him,” Herod said, “So that I may go also…”
We know the magi brought gifts. The gifts we give say something about who we are, about what we believe is true of those who receive them. These were costly gifts, gifts that said something about who the magi were, about what they believed was true of the One who was the reason for their journey. That the gold they carried had not been spent along the way meant that they had enough to make that offering, and also that they saw this child as king. Myrrh, the oil of anointing, was particularly used to anoint people at the time of death. And frankincense, which is and was a perfume of great value, served also as a symbol of divinity. These three gifts: to a king, who would die, who was God; show these magi, with their different customs and their strange foods and their foreign languages, might in fact be among the very first faithful seekers.
Because they saw a star?!
When have you seen something so real that the truth of it burned maybe just a little bit too bright? Something that hurt to look at it, but perhaps it would have hurt even worse to turn away from? When have you seen something so true that you couldn’t keep doing things the way you had been, before that moment? When have you seen something you couldn’t not see, or heard something you couldn’t not hear, or touched something you couldn’t not feel, or tasted something you couldn’t not taste? And what has that compelled in you, even though it cost you something, in money, or comfort, or perception, or all of those things?
Is that what made this journey the thing the magi couldn’t not do? In spite of their different faiths and their strange accents and their unusual clothes, is it possible that these magi were among the very first disciples? Is it possible that their purpose in the story of our faith is to remind us all that Jesus was, from the beginning, meant to be good news for everybody, everybody, everybody?
My friends, if this is true – if there’s any possibility that it’s true – how, then, do we return to Isaiah’s prophecy and command? At a time when darkness covers the earth, at a time when thick darkness covers the peoples…then, and again, and now…Isaiah promises that the Lord will arise upon you, and that God’s glory will appear over you.
So arise. Shine. For your light has come.
And the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.
 “Journey of the Magi,” The Ariel Poems. 1927.