We’ve been living for a few weeks in the in-between times. In between the half-seasons of television shows, I mean. Since the beginning of December, most series have taken a hiatus, and this next week, the dramas and comedies return in full force. Not least—Downton Abbey Season Three starts on this side of the pond tomorrow night/tonight at 9pm. Our recording devices will return to their usual, almost-full-to-capacity status, and our ache to find out if the hero will return from his coma will, hopefully, be sated. We are desperate to discover whether the heroine will ever find true love, we despair along with the couple who seek an adoption, but keep falling into heart-breaking loopholes. Of course, this could be more than just television; we could be facing these sorts of hopes and tensions in our real lives, too.
These stories, great and small, deep and vapid, true and fictional, speak to our need for a narrative of a love so extraordinary as to change everything it touches.
This is, perhaps, something of what the wise men sought as recounted in our Gospel passage today. Matthew tells us they packed up their camels and trekked across a continent to meet this new baby King. These wealthy, busy men didn’t send a messenger, or even have Babies ‘R Us ship a gift to Jesus. These studiers of the heavens had seen something big—this light in the heavens—and whatever it was that caused the light had to be seen in person. They were desperate understand and to be near the event that had made even the predictable skies look new.
They rushed to Jerusalem to congratulate Herod on this great event that had taken place in his backyard; they were eager to get directions from Herod about where exactly to find this child-king. Imagine these impressive, imposing men standing on your front porch, knocking on your door. They’re wild-eyed and overcome—bursting with joy for the adventure they’ve undertaken. Herod opens the door in his bathrobe, having been roused from the couch watching reruns on TV, and stares at these men blankly. What are you doing here? What do you want?
They practically bulldoze him, rushing through the rooms of the house, tearing down the hallways, spouting their research and the prophecy they had found as they hunt desperately for the person they desire. It quickly becomes clear that Herod hadn’t been paying attention to the lights in the sky and the signs around him. He pulls his bathrobe around himself a bit tighter, and a cloud forms over his eyebrows. He narrows his eyes in thought, “it’s not bad enough that I’m living in the Roman Boondocks,” he says to himself, “now there’s a rival that everyone knows about except me.” As soon as the wise men stumble off to Bethlehem, he returns to the couch to brood and to cook up a scheme to unseat this new king.
The wise men troop down the Jerusalem hill, out into the countryside. They’re on edge, they know they must be close to the place where the world has been changed, the place the light has been leading them on their long expedition. They arrive in Bethlehem, on the main street. The light keeps alluding them, they duck behind buildings and then stretch high on their camels to keep an eye on the light. As they get closer and closer to the light, they realize they’re in a shady part of town. There’s the coughing of illness, the stench of poor plumbing, probably a few ladies of the night in some doorways. The tension is incredible—where are they going to end up? What’s going on that the light is leading them to this kind of place?
Suddenly, almost imperceptibly, the light halts—they were, perhaps, confused, but as St. Matthew puts it, they were absolutely “overwhelmed with joy.” They stood on another front porch, much less-grand than the last one, still seeking a king. I imagine this greeting was very different from the grumpy ruler they’d left in the big city. Joseph and Mary were still in the throes of sleep-deprived early-parenthood, and to make matters more stressful, they’d both been having dreams and it was becoming clear that their reality—the quiet life they’d envisioned, raising a happy little family in Nazareth—was not the way that things were going to play out. Now, foreigners showed up on their doorstep, and they begged to see the newborn.
Can you imagine the scene? Joseph and Mary, bleary-eyed, but trying to be hospitable, the travelers, dusty and exhausted, but rapturous finally to be in the same room as this child of promise. Each of them were stretched to their absolute limit—emotionally wasted and physically spent. The light had led each of them to this place—the very edge of survival; and it was here that they found Jesus.
Are you there this morning? Perhaps the holidays were especially hard this year—so much changed in the last twelve months, and 2013 stretches as far as the eye can see. A long trip, even a cross-continent, trek on a camel, sounds like a dream-like escape. Overwhelming joy would be a lovely feeling to experience, but there’s so much evil in the world and so many broken relationships in your life that “joy” doesn’t seem like a state of mind meant for you. I wonder what it was that made the wise men overwhelmed with joy—if it was their aching feet, or their home-sick hearts, or some other force quite outside themselves.
In Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, the young heroine is satisfied with her unmarried life, contentedly spending her time matchmaking others. Throughout the novel, she is plagued by her brother-in-law, Mr. Knightly—his much-more-pleasant brother had married her sister. At the climax, Emma has realized, by his absence, that she is desperately in the love with him and must marry him, and he returns, she thinks, to admit his love for her best friend. Her despair turns quickly to joy when he says that his trip to his brother’s house in London was no comfort—that her sister reminded him daily of his feelings, and that he returned to the country just to be near her again. He says, “I rushed back, anxious for your feelings, I came to be near you. I rode through the rain, but I’d ride through worse than that if I could only hear your voice telling me that I might at least have some chance to win you.”
Jesus went on a very long journey in order to arrive in Bethlehem. The Son of God was with God from the very beginning—even before time, as the Gospel passage from John told us last week. And after the creation of the world, after centuries of time passed and after God developed relationships with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses; he wooed the Hebrew people and showed his love for humanity by telling us how to follow his light and how to thrive in relationship with him. Finally, the Son of God came to earth, as the most extraordinary act of love ever known. He ended up in Mary’s womb, where he grew for nine months, he got crowded in there and made the long, dangerous trek that we all do into the big, wide world. In response to this incredible odyssey Jesus Christ undertook, the wise men thought that the least they could do was to take a trip to see him for themselves. The light came to them and they responded. They traversed the wilderness to witness the miracle of the greatest love the world has ever known—God himself coming just to be near us.