For me, Christmas is pretty much over on December 26th. By then, I am ready to see the tree taken down and the decorations put back in their boxes. But for others, the celebration continues into January with the observation of the feast of the epiphany. It’s also sometimes called the feast of the theophany or the feast of the three kings. It celebrates the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. This year, those who observe it will do so on January 6th.
The Magi are a mystery in the Christmas narrative. They appear suddenly and soon disappear, like the star that drew them first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. They trouble Herod with a question: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2). Matthew does not tell us their names or say how many made the journey. When he describes their point of origin, it is only in general terms. His most detailed description is the term Magi itself, which designated a wise man, astrologer, or magician. What is evident is that the Magi were foreigners. They were the kind of people the apostle Paul would later describe as “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
The Magi were indeed foreigners to the promise, but they were not ignorant of it. The answer given by the priests and teachers of the law to their question indicates that the Magi were not looking for an ordinary royal birth. Based on the information the Magi supplied, the religious leaders concluded that they were looking for the Messiah (Matt. 2:5). The Magi stopped at Jerusalem first because they knew it was Israel’s seat of power spiritually as well as politically.
The Magi came seeking information only to discover that they already knew more about what God was doing than Israel’s king or its priests. The religious leaders, for their part, seem to have been caught unaware by the news. When the Magi showed up on their doorstep asking for information, the chief priests and teachers of the law were able to pinpoint the location of His birth from Scripture. But instead of taking the lead in locating the Messiah, they have nothing more to say. At least for the time being.
Herod, on the other hand, was disturbed. He saw the new king as a personal threat (Matt. 2:9). Herod was an insecure ruler famous for his jealousy and cruelty. Although he urged the Magi to search carefully for the child, promising to follow later and pay him homage, it was merely a ploy (Matt. 2:9). Herod’s real intent was murder. But God thwarted Herod’s plan by warning the Magi in a dream. He also sent an angel to Joseph to tell him to flee to Egypt (Matt. 2:12–14). Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escaped, but the sons of Bethlehem did not. When Herod realized that the Magi had outwitted him, he ordered all the male children in Bethlehem and its vicinity aged two and under to be killed (Matt. 2:16).
Matthew says that the Bethlehem massacre fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18; cf. Jer. 31:15). This quote is proof that God was not taken by surprise. He did not need a contingency plan when Herod and the religious leaders refused to cooperate with His agenda. Indeed, Jeremiah’s prophecy indicates that they were playing into God’s hands even in their resistance.
Does this part of the story have a happy ending or not? It is hard for us to tell. Herod’s bloody rage introduces a somber note into the Christmas narrative, reminding us that not all is starlight and wonder. There is also blood. Bethlehem’s massacre is evidence of the two kingdoms at work in the narrative, just as they are in the world. One is a realm of light and life. The other is a kingdom of darkness and death. However, the death of the sons of Bethlehem was more than the aftershock of Herod’s jealous anger. It foreshadowed a greater casualty that was yet to come. This child, the object of Herod’s rage, escapes. But only for the moment. Before Jesus has worked any miracle or spoken a word, the cross is already looming on His horizon. A stanza in a popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” alludes to this:
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
The battle that swirled around Jesus in infancy will follow Him into adulthood. The religious leaders who were silent when Herod attempted to kill Jesus by slaying the children of Bethlehem will eventually speak up and demand that Pontius Pilate finish the job. An angel will come to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but not to deliver Him from death. This man will be handed over to His enemies “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge,” and with the help of wicked men, those enemies will put Him to death by nailing Him to a cross (Acts 2:23).
The good news, which is also the gospel, is that this is not how the story ends. Peter tells the rest of the tale in his sermon on the day of Pentecost: “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). It is often said that Jesus was born to die, but this is not exactly right. Jesus was born to die for us and then to live again.
It’s true that Herod’s brutality introduces a discordant note into the Christmas story. Still, it also provides us with a needed reality check that serves as a good reminder now that the holiday is over. We exhaust ourselves in our attempt to create the perfect atmosphere during Christmas. We tell ourselves that we are only doing this to make the holiday pleasant. But is it possible that we are instead trying to convince ourselves that we can have a different kind of life? We want the fairy tale life we have seen in holiday movies or the ideal life we think we should have had. Why can’t our family be nicer and our friends friendlier? Is it too much to ask that we might have the kind of life we have always dreamed of for at least one day a year? We find our attempts to get into the season’s spirit spoiled by the ruts and hollows that mar the landscape of our lives. Those ruts and hollows will follow us into the new year. An empty chair at the table will remind us how death or illness has become an uninvited guest in our home. Simple boredom will creep in. The pandemic will continue to trouble us, at least for a while.
The journey of redemption includes evil as well as good. This is not only true of the stories we read in the Bible; it is true in our daily life. God is not responsible for the evil, but the story of the Magi reminds us that He is not a hostage to it either. The Bible reveals that redemption is a drama unfolding along two storylines. The first begins with Adam and descends into disobedience and decay. The second storyline issues from God’s promise in the garden that the woman’s offspring would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). These two intersect at the place where the Magi’s quest finally comes to rest. After leaving Herod, the Magi were overjoyed to discover that the star had reappeared. They followed it until they came to the house where the child was. When they saw Jesus, they bowed down and worshipped. The journey of the Magi ends where ours begins.
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