And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matt 2:12)Just 12 short verses, the Magi get. Unless you include the promise in Isaiah:
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Isa 60:6)And some might, and some might not, according to their choice.
They come in, and go out, like a comet, do the Magi. They come from - in terms of the narrative - nowhere. No introduction, no names, no number (were there three? Two? One hundred and twenty-seven, to ride that multitude of camels?) and, presumably, no pack-drill. They wander in, they shine with the reflected brilliance of a unique glory - they disappear into darkness, leaving by another road.
We don't know how long they stayed - ten minutes, a day, or whether they put themselves up at the Bethlehem Travel-lodge for a few weeks, did a bit of sight-seeing in between the glorifying. We don't know. But I'm guessing they didn't stay long. And they left by another road.
You can see the Magi as the culmination - the end of a story. The standard nativity builds it up nicely - Joseph bangs on the (normally third) door, to be told there's room in the stable. Mary joins him and, in short order, the Christ-child. Then the shepherds, clutching lambs, then Magi offering presents. At modern nativities of the thorough sort, there's normally assorted llamas, alligators and Furbies knocking around the place at this point. A few angels may hover, But the Wise Men finish the set, don't they? The collection is complete. The curtain can come down, and the angel that's been "really needing a wee" since the start of Act 2 can leg it, and the kids can come out and the lad who played Second Ox can get the necessary praise from his mum and granddad, and they can all have a mince pie and a cup of tea or juice according to choice.
But of course that's not what it's about, is it? This nativity set is more like a set of skittles. And you don't set up skittles to look at them. You set skittles up to throw a cheese at, or bowl a large ball at, according to the game of choice. And they get scattered. The shepherds, by this stage, are in any case back in the field. The Wise Men are to go back to their own country - somewhere via the North and then East - by another road. The angels have disappeared into wherever angels disappear - the sky, or heaven, or the land of myths and human subconscious, or simply into the background - until they'll be needed in the Desert, or at the Transfiguration, or in one Garden or the other.
The Magi have set the ball rolling - or, if you're from the South Midlands, the cheese flying. And that missile heading towards the sweetness of the manger / stable / house according to stage of development of the nativity scene, is human power-hunger, human ambition, human hatred. The set is broken up and they're all off in different directions. The Christ-child, and his mother and step-dad - they're going to have to leave by another road shortly, as well. In a story that's going to become familiar, everybody scatters - and somebody has to pay the price of human hatred and the power of a king. A king who can't be the real King, because his power has been sold to him - by a power that has only borrowed it - and their time is running out.
The point is this. We can rest in a moment of wonder. We can draw strength from its beauty. We can gaze on the crib and think, isn't it lovely? The innocence and worship and awe. But we can't cling on there. We can have a beautiful church - we can decorate it, we can light candles. We can erect monuments to the people who went before - we can treasure their memory.
But we can't stay there. The shepherds had to go off and tell their mates about what they'd seen. The Magi went back to Arabia and - presumably - pondered the wonders they'd seen, and became even wiser. Frankly, we don't know. But they went home changed - as a comet shines, in the light and heat and bombardment of the sun - it chucks out some dust into space, it boils off some ice, it picks up some solar particles - it glows with a brightness it can't own, and it sails away, changed. The Wise Men are changed - they go home by another way. And, with a cross before him and a vicious king behind him, Jesus goes home another away. The Blessed Virgin heads out - to protect her son in the short term - but knowing that a sword through her heart will one day await her. And every time we hear about Jesus from there on in, he's on the move - always heading towards Jerusalem.
We can rest in the holy moment - for a moment. But we, and the Church, have to move on. We are not called to sit in one place - even if we do so geographically. We're called to be pilgrims. Wherever the world goes, we're called to go with it - comforting it, challenging it, transforming it. Where the culture changes, we've got to be able to redeem it. Where times change - we've got to hold onto the essentials, but learn the language - adapt to the circumstances - keep speaking the Gospel in a language that will get through. Keep telling the truth, keep standing for the poor, keep following Jesus.
We come into Church and worship God. We call Jesus the Son of God - called to his beauty, his love, his innocence. But we can't rest as we are, stay as we've always been, hang onto how things are. The power of the Spirit; the presence of Jesus - means we should expect to be changed. We come in - we worship - we are different. And we leave, for our own country, by another road.