A few years ago, my wife, Elizabeth, received a Christmas card from a family friend that hung on our refrigerator for all the years that our children were young. It said, “After the wise men left, the Holy family was visited by three wise women.” In the picture box you can see Mary exclaiming with joy, “Diapers! Wipes! and a Onsie! Finally some gifts we can use!”
The visit of the three wise men in scripture has become synonymous with the Christmas story. We’ve all seen and been a part of pageants in which boys sporting beards and bathrobes capped with burger king crowns marched solemnly down the aisle of the church bringing treasure chests full of gold, frankincense and myrrh. My son Alistair was a wise man when he was 3. There were four wise men that year because we needed an extra part. Unfortunately, his crown had been made for a slightly older king and kept falling down around his neck every time he swiveled his body nervously. It was one of our favorite Christmas pageants ever.
What we sometimes forget in our Christmas pageants is that the wise men, or magi, observed the star at its rising, and followed it to Bethlehem. We think of them almost like the shepherds abiding in the fields who saw and heard the angelic chorus and went to check it out that same night. But the Magi were from afar, and didn’t have jets or cars or motorcycles to sweep across the desert waste. They had to make their way on camelback, a much longer process. They followed the star across the desert until they got to the crossroads. The star seemed to lead them south, to Bethlehem, but a road sign said “Jerusalem, capital city,” and they took the detour to the north to Jerusalem, thinking they would find the newborn king, where else, but in the palace of the reigning king. It was not so. When they left King Herod’s court, it was almost as if the star had come back to greet them, insistently to lead them out of the King’s court, out of the temple precinct, down the narrow, winding streets, out the city gate, where finally, it hung a left and headed to Bethlehem.
When the star finally stopped, they rejoiced. Maybe it was because they were saddle sore. Camels aren’t the easiest of beasts to ride. But maybe, just maybe, they saw in this newborn child the hope of the world. You see, they were not from around here. Herod was not their king. They were even beyond the scope of the vast Roman Empire. They came from the East, from lands that had once ruled Judea and now did not. They were not kings, nor would they have been respected as wise by Judeans. They were astrologers, looking at constellations for signs of their destiny. They were outsiders. They were foreign. They were the kind of folk to consult the psychic hotline. They were superstitious soothsayers who hung their fate on the stars. And yet, this star had reached into their lives and led them somewhere different, to the feeding trough that was the first cradle of the only Son of God.
And there, in the face of this child, they saw reflected the light of the star that had guided them, and they knew that they could not go back to their old ways. Their lives, like the star, had to take a different turn, away from their homeland, away from Jerusalem, away from the halls of power, away from the wealth that captivated them, away from the quasi-religious hocus-pocus that made them feel self-justified. They unloaded their gifts, their treasure chests, the things they had carried with them across the desert, the wares that had defined them, the gold, the frankincense, the myrrh, these were regular elements in their religious practices. When they left them at the manger, it meant more than “here’s a gift out of my excess,” it represented the laying down of their old ways to take up the ways of Jesus.
And so here we are, on the twelfth day of Christmas, the day before we celebrate the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been seeking signs for much of my life. “Where are you God? Show yourself, prove yourself to me, then I’ll believe.” When I was in fifth grade, I made a castle out of clay for a social studies project about Medieval England. I used to imagine that castle was my house, that I was the king, that I had armies to do my bidding, that I could exercise control over my dominion. I’ve carried that illusion over into adulthood trying to control my own destiny, make my own way, demonstrate my value as a human being by my success and achievement. I keep trying on the crown of my life and looking at myself in a mirror. For a time, it looks good on me, but it never quite fits and always ends up falling down around my neck, transformed from crown to collar.
Since childhood I have professed Jesus as my Savior. I have long known and accepted that he died to save me from my sins. I am grateful. But Jesus did not just come into the world to save me, he came into the world to show me a way to live. The thing is, he not only wants me to acknowledge him as my savior, he wants me to crown him as my Lord as well. You see, the crown of my life doesn’t fit me, it only fits him. As long as I try to determine my life, as long as I try to make the crown look good, as long as I try to maintain control over my circumstance and my destiny, it will only be what I can make of it, which is not much more than a mess. As long as I retain the crown, I persist in sin. Yet I am finding that the more I yield the crown to my savior, the more I actually make him my Lord, the more I actually train my feet to follow him and my heart to beat with his, the more my life is transformed not just in the great by and by, but in the here and now.
The gifts of the Magi were not presents that they could give without second thought then get on with their lives. The gifts the Magi gave were their whole lives, all that had defined them and made them who they were, all that had set them apart and made them special. They left the manger no longer Magi, no longer wealthy, no longer obsessively following horoscopes and stars. They left their lives at the manger and went home by another way, the scripture says. The earliest Christians were called, “people of the Way.” Could the scriptures be indicating that the Magi not only took a different road home, but that they became “people of the Way?” The historical answer is never given, but the story invites us to consider what we need to lay down, to leave behind in order to live as people of the Way.
The question comes to us: what will we give the Christ child? Will we give to him out of our abundance, or will we give him our all? Will we trust him with our wealth, our position, our power, even our religion? Will we trust our church to him, or is that just for us? Will we risk giving him our loves or are they ours to define, to hold on to, to protect? Will we give him all that defines us, that makes us who we are trusting that he knows us more deeply, more intimately than we know ourselves? Will we give him the crown of our lives knowing that it doesn’t quite fit us so that he may lead us into a life that is broader, deeper, more abundant and joy filled than we could have ever imagined? I can’t answer for you, but I know that for me, my crown has become a collar and it is choking me. This Epiphany, I’m giving it back to the One who made it, who made me, and am asking him to lead me home by another Way.