For Reflection: This week Benjamin reflects on the Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The arrival of the journeying wisemen in our nativity scene often feels like the last piece of the jigsaw of our Christmas story has fallen into place.
Through Advent we build the frame of this picture, as we hear of the Patriarchs and Prophets, of John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.
At Christmas we bring the stable with its animals and manger and Mary and Joseph. Then come the shepherds with their angelic accompaniment. Then as we arrive at the Epiphany and fill in the final few pieces with our journeying Wisemen with their gifts and the star. All these pieces focusing on the central part of this well-loved picture. The beatific image of the child, of Jesus, of Emmanuel, God with us.
It can feel like there is an inevitability to this, that this all comes together in God’s good plan. But of course, it is more complex than this. This well-known scene is not a representation of the bible story as such, and more a confection and creation of our tradition. Centuries of devotion and reflection have brought together the different parts of this picture from across the biblical stories written to help us understand the world changing truth that in Jesus, God came to be with us.
Drawn from across the gospel accounts and beyond that to the Old Testament prophesies this really is a jigsaw more than a unified picture. The animals in the stable come from the promises of Isaiah, the angels and shepherds from Luke, and the wisemen and star we hear of today from Matthew.
There is something both comforting and awe inspiring about this picture which, all read together, they create a vision and understanding of who God is for us in Jesus. There is, though, a danger that we read these individual stories purely as a means to the end of completing our nativity scene and by doing so miss some of the deeper truths that these individual stories are here to tell us.
So, Isaiah’s vision is more than simply the placing of animals in a stable – but a transformed vision of world of peace and unity where:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
Similarly, Luke’s inclusion of the shepherds into the story is more than simply the addition of some humble, pastoral imagery. But a portent of Luke’s promise – spoken by Mary in her Magnificat – of a world turned upside down where God in Jesus has:
… brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
So, as we come to the journey of the wisemen we should take time to reflect on what Matthew is pointing us towards in his telling of the story of Jesus.
The first thing to say is that for Matthew, this is not the end of the story. We are so used to the shape of the nativity story that we see the coming of the kings as the final piece of the jigsaw which we put in, admire, and then put away for another year. For Matthew this story, at the beginning of chapter two, is the middle of a larger story which Matthew’s Gospel seeks to unfold for us.
For Matthew God in Jesus is breaking into the confusion and corruption of our world. At the beginning of this Gospel Matthew is as pains to place Jesus – through his adoptive earthly-father Joseph – into the line of King David and through David to Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham.
The visit of the wisemen is not told to complete a preordained nativity image. Rather their story – half of which we heard today – is used to contrast corrupt and violent rule of Herod with the promised just and gentle rule of the Messiah. Matthew’s account of journey of the wisemen’s is not the completion of the story but a recognition of the challenging and perilous journey we are called to follow as we seek who God is for us in Jesus.
This reality leads us to the second theme of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. The glimpse of this story we have heard today is part of it, a glimpse of hope and light, but it is not the whole story. What Matthew’s story reminds us is that the hope Jesus brings exists within the mess and uncertainty of the world around us. His birth does not remove this reality, rather is works within it to change and transform it.
This year we hear this story in the context of the pandemic and anxiety and uncertainty of this time. Cases are rising sharply across the country; the new strain of the virus is creating intolerable pressure on the NHS in some quarters. But into this uncertainty there is the hope of the vaccine and the possibility that this reality will be transformed and renewed.
But the latter cannot be divorced from the former. The hope of the vaccine will only become a reality if we recognise the urgency of this present time and the caution we need to follow as we travel through this perilous time together.
As we reflect today on the wisemen, on their journey, and what their story tells us about who God for us is in Jesus, we need to recognise that this is not a neat story filling in the final gaps in our Nativity jigsaw. Rather it tells of the dangerous and perilous journey they took not just to honour the child and his mother, but from that encounter to the world that lies beyond it.
Over the coming months we will be travelling a perilous journey as a community and nation. Like the wisemen we need to be focused on the hope that we have seen from afar, and as we journey on, remain fixed on that hope as we face the perils and uncertainties of this time together.
Questions for reflection
- Have you ever been on a perilous journey?
- What have been the chief perils of the journey through this last year?
- What glimpses of hope and light have you seen?