Wise Men Search for the Baby: Epiphany

Wise Men Still Seek Him.Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth on Epiphany. Their equivalent of our Christmas Eve service sometimes involves the Wise Men’s search for the baby Jesus. In the dark of the night very tall, very black monks dress as the Magi. They then go through the village, stopping at every hut, knocking at every door. Very quietly those inside open with a question asked in soft whispers, “Whom do you seek, Christians?” And the Wise Men answer, “The Savior, Christ the Lord.” One after another the occupants shake their heads, saying “He is not here. Search further.” Finally in the last hut of the village the door is opened to reveal the newest born baby dressed as the Christ Child. With shouts of “Alleluia” the monks carry the baby back through the village. The people emerge from their homes to join the parade as it makes its way to the church where all worship the King.

Perhaps in the quiet of our worship we should ask one another, “Whom do you seek, Christian? For whom are you searching? From what do you want him to save you? Whom do you seek, Christian?”

Our hopes and fears meet in this search. Matthew claims we can be a seeker like the Wise Men who filled with hope welcomed Christ Child or we can be like Herod who, overcome with fear, tried to kill him.

Matthew says Herod, and significantly all Jerusalem with him, were frightened of this new king. They seek a savior who will ensure things remain as they are. Herod and the urban crowd co-operated with Rome and were rewarded with wealth, security, and employment. A new King of Jews threatened their privileges. There is a side of me that seeks their kind of savior. I, too, am afraid I might lose my privilege, my power, my riches. There is a bit of Herod in me.

The Bible makes it clear that to live in fear of losing your privilege is dangerous. Fear leads to paranoia. You begin to think everyone is out to get you; your friends seem to be your enemies. Herod was the ultimate paranoid. He built enormous fortresses he did not need. The two which remain, Masada and Herodium, were created by cutting off the top of colossal mountains. On this flattened area, Herod build small cities stock-piled with goods that would enable him to survive for months. If his people revolted, he could run quickly to the nearest fortress and sustain himself until his Roman friends came to rescue him.

There is a side of me that wants to survive at any cost. I only feel safe if my defense budget is many times all other nations combined. There is a side of me that truly believes the only way to stop an evil man with a gun is a good man with a gun. There is a bit of Herod in me.

Fear also leads to an inability to tell fact from fiction. Herod asks the Wise Men to report where Jesus lives, because he wants to worship this new king. He is a liar, who like all liars, pretends to love the truth. Every word from his mouth is to get what he wants. There is a side of me that denies the truth, even the truth about myself. There is a bit of Herod in me.

Fear even drives us to kill. Herod wants to know where the child is born, so he can kill him. And when he cannot precisely locate him, he simply massacres all the small children in the village. He might kiss babies to impress his subjects, but he is ready to kill them if they threaten his control. There is a side of me that cheers when my drones kill a suspected terrorist, writing off as collateral damage the death of innocent children. There is a bit of Herod in me.

On the other hand, there is also a bit of Wise Man in me. These strangers, whom some think are the enemy because they are foreigners, make a long, dangerous journey facing deceit and resistance, search for a better way. But they finally find the King of the Jews. They fall to their knees, lay their crowns before him, and give up their privileges. When the Child touches them, they are changed forever, see the Truth, and take a different way home, leaving Herod alone in his palace surrounded by flatterers wallowing in fear.

W. H. Auden, in his poetic drama “For the Time Being,” pictures the Wise Men describing for what they are searching. The first says, “To discover how to be truthful now is the reason I follow this star.” The second, “To discover how to be living now.” And the third, “To discover how to be loving now.” Then all three in unison, “At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners, that this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners, and miss our wives, our books, our dogs, but have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are. To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow this star.”

We gather this Epiphany knowing that we live in a society paralyzed by fear that we are losing our way of life. We come seeking better ways to live, praying that this Christ Child can might together the Herods and Wise Men of this world. We know this will be difficult . This child grew up constantly confronting Herods. In the end, he stands before Pontius Pilate who, wanting things to remain the same, fears losing power.  Pilot asks “What is truth?” and kills Jesus as an enemy of humanity under the sign, “The King of the Jews.” There is no doubt this the very one for whom the Wise Men searched.

Three days later, three women come searching. Once more the question, “Whom do you seek, Christians?” And the answer “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” And then the response we all want to hear, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is risen. Go search for him in your world.”

On Epiphany one year ago, I saw what it will be like when the Herods and Wise Men follow Jesus to a better humanity. My wife and I were sitting in our apartment in Florence, Italy. Hearing medieval music, we went to our balcony to see passing below us the Italian equivalent of the Ethiopian search. For an hour and a half, the mayors of all the nearby towns marched in medieval costume. Each was followed by his people in glorious silks and satins. Brilliant flags were thrown; a band played. Some rode horses carrying hawks, some brought food, some led animals. It was magnificent. The Herods and Wise Men passed in their finery, searching. Hours later they returned, escorting those who had brought them together. A young couple holding a child humbling walked with them dressed in drab peasant clothing.

The biblical message was very clear. The Herods and Wise Men among and in us will come together when we unite to care for the poor.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.