Copyright: Wonderlane used with permission.
The wise men r us.
By that I mean they are that vast reach of overlooked humanity that had no part in God’s Covenant with Abraham. The wise men are you and me, who will be, at long last and as St Paul put it, “grafted” onto the original tree of life that God planted when He raised up first a man and his wife, then their family, and finally, a people, to be the flame of flickering light in the darkness of fallen humanity.
We sorta know the story of the Wise Men. We’ve seen it acted out in Christmas pageants when, at the end of the story of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the manger, three little boys walk in to the tune of We Three Kings. They are wearing bathrobes made of shiny fabric and carrying three boxes marked “gold,” “frankincense” and “myrrh.”
The little boys put their boxes next to a makeshift manger which holds a doll wrapped in a baby blanket. Meanwhile a little girl, dressed in a her mother’s bathrobe and a little boy dressed in his dad’s, look on. The shepherds are already there, along with a couple of little girl angels.
It’s Christmas and the people rise to sing Joy to the World with the gusto of those who know in their hearts that this story, however simply it is told, is true.
These Christmas pageants are simple, fun and they do tell the essential story. But the layers upon layers of meaning that the story holds are not touched. That’s to the good, of course, since belief lies not in layers of understanding but in the simplicity of ultimate truth.
Christmas is about the end of the endless night of ultimate hopelessness. It is the story of The Light breaking into human history. As such, the simplicity of small-church Christmas pageants are all we need to tell the story.
But for those who want to look past the dust jacket on the story, the questions and the answers are there. Before Jesus, God’s direct work with humanity had been limited to this smallish family turned nation that He had settled smack along the most important trade route of the ancient world. The bread basket of Egypt, the spices and riches of the East, traveled along this narrow way near the sea on their journey to Europe.
Rome fed off this route, as had numerous empires before it. Of all the places in the ancient world, the one most likely to be fought over, invaded, battered and beaten, was this one. Why did God put His people here?
My guess is that it was because the story of the Jews is not just the story of the Jews. It is the story of Jesus’ family. The Bible itself is, from the first page to the last, the story of Jesus, of God’s redemption of us, all of us, everywhere. He chose to send His redemption first through a man and his wife, then through a family and finally through a single nation.
When Jesus was born, He repeated the story and went back, once again, to a man and woman, a husband and wife. It seems that God always begins His beginnings with humanity with family.
The Chosen people were chosen, as God told Abraham, “to be a blessing.” They job was to bring that first flickering point of light to the world at large. The nation of Israel was in the one best place best situated for sending the message of redemption to the whole world. The location that made it a perilous location of great political and economic interest, also made it the perfect jumping-off place for spreading the Good News outward until it met itself circling the globe.
Thus Jesus, when He finally came, was a Jew, born to Jews in a vassal Jewish nation residing in the crook of the elbow of the ancient economy.
He was, from the beginning, the Light of the World. Not, notice, the light of the Jews. Jesus, a Jew, born of Jews, came for every person who walked the planet. Salvation came from the Jews, but it was for us all.
That is the meaning of the Epiphany. It is the underlying message of God calling three wise men to, as the hymn says, “traverse afar” in their quest to find Him. These men were not Jews. They were us, the unsaved sea of humanity that had been, up until then, standing outside the door.
The epiphany of the Epiphany is that we are part of the story now. Salvation came from the Jews, but it is no longer theirs alone. From the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, He called all humanity to Himself. It began with three men who followed a star and it is unfolding to this day.
Pope Francis surprised the pundits this week by raising up cardinals from far-flung locations about the world, many of which are places where Christians suffer desperate persecution. The mustard seed is just being planted in some of these lands. Those cardinals are the successors to the wise men.
… the Gospel must be preached to all nations, Jesus told us.
And it will be.
And it is.
Like every other story of humankind, the story of our salvation begins with a man, a woman, and a baby. It begins with a family, and it ends with eternal life.
Mixed into this story is the tale of three wise men who “traversed afar” to pay homage to a newborn king laid in a manger in a stable. They visited the Romans’ vassal king of that land, King Herod, on their way to Him. In doing so, they alerted a ruthless and insecure man to a potential threat. Their indiscretion cost the lives of innocent children, executed by King Herod in a drive to safeguard his throne against prophecy. They were the trigger that sent Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus into exile in Egypt.
Their part in the story of salvation, was germinal in every way. But the most important part of it is also the most often overlooked. The wise men were not Jews, they were not of the Chosen people. The blood of Abraham did not flow in their veins. But God called them and guided them and over a long journey led them … to Him.
In this way, the epiphany of the Epiphany is that we are welcome at the table now. The doors to God’s salvation opened wide on that night when He was born, allowing any who will take the step to enter in. It began with a star, a journey and a baby.
Because the wise men r us.