It was about 4 B.C. -- in this case, fours years before children -- when my wife and I discussed replacing a screen door. Screen doors usually come in two sections, the top half being a screen to let in the cool air while keeping out the bugs, and the bottom being a piece of glass or plexiglass, the better for cats to scratch to ask to come in. My wife told me she wanted a one-piece door, a novelty I had never heard of . "Everybody has one," she said. "No way," I rejoindered. "We'll be the only ones that have one, and it will look stupid!" Like many marital arguments, this one went round and round on for a while until I said, "OK. Let's take a walk and see how 'everybody' has a one-piece screen door!" Naturally, and in spite of a history to the contrary, I expected to prevail.
And so went we went. And wouldn't you know it, but every third home on our street had a one-piece screen door. Sure, it wasn't "everybody," but such doors were far from being non-existent! I didn't know they existed, and so I never saw them until my eyes were opened.
This Sunday, we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, when the "three wise men" (who were not necessarily three, nor wise beyond astrology, nor men) brought gifts to the Christ Child in Bethlehem. But what set them off on their journey? The magi, priest-astrologers from Babylon, were students of the stars. Not in the Neil deGrasse Tyson sense, but in the back-of-the-paper-comics-pages sense. They would have mapped the heavens with reference to events and peoples on earth -- this constellation for this nation, and that planet for that human trait, such as love or martial spirit. But then, as now, this was all make-believe. If a comet blazed by or a nova appeared, the magi and their kind would have attached extravagant meaning to it. Two planets passing near each other in conjunction (a humdrum happenstance in a flat solar system with planets in orbit) would have got the astrological community buzzing. A triple conjunction would have had them in near delirium.
But something set them off, and it's not for me to say whether it was a celestial happening that we can recreate with our computers, or some other bit of arcane gobbledygook that only the magi understood. But off they went to Judea, where the heavens bade them go.
But where in Judea? Ah, that was the question. They knew the nation affected by the change announced by the stars, but little else. So, to the capital city they went. Jerusalem, home of King Herod the Great. He, the builder of great seaports and citadels. And the man who razed the Temple, which was showing its age after 500 years of constant use, in order to build a new Temple to God's glory and his own. Herod was also a paranoid ruler who, over the course of his reign, had one wife and several sons executed for allegedly plotting against him. It was to the court of this Herod the Great, mad and ailing, that the magi appeared one day, seeking directions to a newborn king of the Jews.
For all its peril, the visit to Herod in Jerusalem was unavoidable. The stars had brought the magi only this far. But surely, the locals would have information that would bring them the rest of the way. And so, these dusty and unimpressive travellers visited Herod's court. It defies imagination that Herod saw them personally. They were not royalty, nor where they travelling on behalf of a monarch. Yet whether Herod or an underling gave them an audience, they made contact with some sage who combed the Hebrew scriptures and his own memories. A messiah (a meaningless title to a Babylonian priest) was expected. He would come from the severed stump of Jesse's lineage -- Jesse, the father of the illustrious King David of old. David had come from the hamlet of Bethlehem, 6 miles down the road. Then, there was an obscure throwaway passage from Micah, that gloom-and-doom-and-restoration prophet of seven centuries past, about a ruler coming from Bethlehem. Circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but no more so than the stray movement of lights in the skies. Enough to merit investigation.
Herod does not seem to have taken the magi seriously. Based on their later movements, he does not even seem to have had them watched by his secret police. They blended in with the throngs of Jerusalem's dwellers, took the road to Jerusalem and reached the place in a few hours. There, they located a bewildered and probably terrified Mary and Joseph and left small tokens. Whether they thought they had located
child is unknown. Who knows how many other households they visited? Matthew tells us they were warned in a dream to avoid a return to Herod, but it's just as likely that Herod didn't bother with them. They left Judea, and disappeared into obscurity and myth.
There are those who tells us that Matthew invented this story -- the weird, wandering star; the gold, frankincense and myrrh; the goyish travellers -- or that he got it from a source who invented it. Maybe. But the story has God's fingerprints all over it. People are moved, quite literally, and apparently of their own accord. Their day-to-day business crosses paths meaningfully with others on life's seemingly random road. They undertake journeys in search of one thing, and find another of much greater value. Sometimes, they recognize what they have found immediately; oftentimes, not until years later; frequently, not at all. They seek a king, but find a poor child tended by peasants. They seek court and glory, but find a dirty stable. The magi's subsequent silence on the matter (they did not publicize who they had found) suggests that they did not understand it fully or at all. But they have done their part, perhaps unwittingly. A favored child had been honored; a destiny of kingship, divinity and brute mortality had been acknowledged.
But for a few lines written in Greek by a first-century nonentity named Matthew, the story would have ended there -- fulfilled, but another secret held in the mantle of God's boundless memory. Yet this secret got out, and amuses, frightens and nourishes us still. As does the greater revelation of God's love and kinship held in the developing mind of a tiny infant wrapped against the cold in a drafty stable in Bethlehem. And like a one-piece screen door, this treasure, once it has been seen, beckons forth from everywhere and everyone..