The magi, wise men from the East, came to Jerusalem and ask, "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." That's a long way to travel just to meet a baby, no matter how special that baby is.
We often compress the biblical power of the Feast of the Epiphany--somewhat conveniently and unintentionally--by putting the three wise men at the nativity scene alongside the shepherds. But Epiphany comes at the end of Christmas, not at the beginning. In the church and probably in some of your homes, we start the twelve days of Christmas with the wise men on the other side of the room--in a windowsill toward the back--and they make their way, closer and closer, until they arrive on January 6.
Then again, maybe the wise men don't belong in the nativity at all. Luke is the only gospel writer to mention any shepherds coming to adore Jesus, and Matthew is the only one to mention the magi. It's as if each wanted to tell a different story of Jesus' birth being revealed to the world. Luke depicts angels breaking through into night sky to tell the humble shepherd, while Matthew has an astrology chart and a rising star declaring the king's birth to some far-away Zoroastrians. Maybe they should make two different kinds of nativity scenes--one for Luke's account and one for Matthew's. Or maybe it's up to us to see how both sides of the same event give us an even deeper insight into God's great plan of salvation.
Imagine coming all that way, from the East, to Palestine--to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem--to greet an infant whom the starts foretold would be the ruler of someone else's nation. Though there's hardly any evidence to support it, the tradition holds that the three wise men came from Arabia, Babylon, and India--three different parts of the Persian Empire. It's even more astounding to imagine how three separate astrologer-priests would make their way to this shepherd-village to see the child king. And yet, whether they travelled together or separately, for God to reach down and show the plan of salvation to these sages from afar, to draw them into a story where they did not belong, helps us know how to make sense of Jesus' birth.
God's great cosmic plan of salvation comes to bear not only in a Jewish village under Roman occupation in the days of King Herod. It shows up in the stars of heaven in a way that speaks beyond country or ethnicity or ancestry or religion. It reaches out across the continents and grabs the attention of those who have no other connection to the people of Israel, the children of Abraham. It does not ask that the magi undergo Jewish conversion before they can properly interpret the star charts, nor does it require their formation as would-be disciples in order to receive and carry with them the news of the savior's birth. Two thousand years later, God wants us to know that in the birth of Jesus God has done more than give a people their long-awaited king. In Christ, God has reached out to bring into the story of salvation those who didn't even realize that they belong. So powerful is this intention of inclusion that even the stars declare it.
How far away are you? How far away have you drifted over the last twenty-one months? How far away have you been your whole life? How far away from the people who seem always to have known that they belong at the table are you? How far away from the One who made you do you feel?
The wise men crowd into the nativity scene. They come with their exotic gifts and strange costumes and unfamiliar skin tones and unintelligible speech. They squeeze themselves into the story of Jesus' birth in order to be sure that we know that that's where we belong, too. No matter how strange you feel, no matter how far away you are, in the birth of Jesus Christ, you become an integral part of God's salvation story. They came all that way so that you might come, too.