They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.They prostrated themselves and did him homage.Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way. (Matt 2)Astrologers, magicians, scientists,priests - we don't really know where to put the Magi. Somewhere in between those, probably. The lines we draw today are a bit sharper than they were in the past. And then, of course - astrology isn't a kind of religion. No, it's a kind of science. As Maureen Lipman used to tell her fictional nephew - "you got an 'ology, you're a scientist." It's bad science: science that doesn't work. But it is science. It claims you can understand personality - even predict the future - if you know something about the state of the stars at certain times. So it's subject to falsification and verification. It's astronomy's more personable, more extrovert - but less ambitious and nerdy, older sibling. It just doesn't work, that's the only problem with it.
Except, it seems, this time. They come seeking the King of the Jews, having read something right from the stars. Something - a star, according to Matthew; Jupiter, according to some theories - has risen in the East. Well, all stars and planets rise in the East. That's how we tell them apart from the International Space Station. And the ISS wasn't around in those days. But they saw it when it rose, and - driven by some mixture of understanding, their own kind of science and - who knows - the hand of God - they've ended up at Jerusalem.
Close, but no cigar. Only six miles out. Within the margin of error, I reckon, for a bunch of scientists using a science that doesn't work. That's not so bad. And there, the scientists run up against the experts in Scripture.
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”And it's the theologians that give them the answer. "Bethlehem. You're just down the road." But though these theologians know the Scriptures - they do nothing about it. They just sit there on their theologically-correct, eschatological bottoms and do a bit more musing.
They know what they're talking about, do these scribes. But maybe they're divorced from their subject. You know what that kind of learning can do. What should be all about truth becomes instead just a thing to study. Scripture to them is a specimen - the book of Micah is, for them, like a butterfly with a pin through it. Stuck there to inspect, to tut over, to weight the words of. But run all the way over the Bethlehem, with the promise of a baby Messiah? Maybe not. In the same way you can study Thomas Hardy and never get the urge to throw a bag in your car and head for Dorset. There's theologians, after all, who don't believe in God. You want to be at a safe distance, lest you're disappointed by the reality or overcome by it. Or maybe they're just worried about what Herod will do if they run down and welcome this baby king. Itchy trigger finger, had Herod.
It's the Magi - the maverick foreigners, the Gentiles with the odd star-gazing habit - who don't think it's just an academic matter. They've dragged their bums halfway across the known world, through danger, heat and cold, to get here. They're not gonna quibble over half a dozen miles. They're off and heading for Bethlehem.
Albrecht Dürer - Adoration of the Magi(Wikimedia Commons)
All the promises of the prophets, all the wonders of the universe. All that is, and all that ever might be. The knowledge of the ages, and the darkness hiding the ages to come. They're all held in the grasp of a baby's hands. The mind that conceived the universe, conceived and brought into the world by a young girl.
The knowledge of sages and insights of prophets are secondary now. They've come to see, they've arrived and now they know. Listen. You can know the wonders of God through the study of science. You can see the mind of God written in the rules of physics, God's wondrous carelessness and terrifying abandon in the laws that run the world. And you can try to fathom God's will, to know your right behaviour and the ends of all things, through the Scripture. And when you actually know - just grasp a moment of the presence of Godself in this world. When you know, for a moment, for just a thumbnail of the wonder with which you are know, then you will find the resolution of all truths and the end of all our human strugglings.
They threw themselves down and worshipped, then they went home by another route. Changed forever and filled with the joy of knowing Christ's presence. It's open to us too. Offer your gifts, your knowledge, your wisdom and your searchings. Pour them all out before him. And know that the Christ born in Bethlehem is born in your heart. A third way to know, the glory and culmination of the other two. God is here with us.