Sister Mary Glenn, OSB reflects on the scripture readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
The story we hear today is one of the most well known in Christian history. It has all the ingredients of a good story: an important city, Jerusalem, contrasted with little Bethlehem; astrologers from the exotic East called wise men; a wicked king and his frightened cohorts; a young mother and her baby; a treasure chest with gold and precious oils. Hovering over all this is a star moving across the sky and coming to a standstill in the exact spot where the child is. The story also carries an atmosphere of danger and foreboding in the curiosity of King Herod and his secret meeting with the wise men. But the wicked king is outwitted when the visitors go home a different way.
As we know, this is not the end of the story. It continues with the revenge that Herod takes when he orders the death of children born around the same time as Jesus. But he is outwitted again when Joseph leaves during the night with the child and his mother and goes to Egypt. When they return, it seems safer to avoid Jerusalem and go north to Nazareth.
All of Chapter 2 can be read as an abbreviated summary of Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus faces opposition, while the wise among his followers see him as the promised Messiah. Twenty-four chapters later the setting again is Jerusalem where the chief priests and scribes are plotting to kill Jesus, and the title “King of the Jews” is used to ridicule Jesus because he has obviously failed to establish a kingdom in this world.
All the gospels tell us that Jesus avoided the title of “king” but many of his followers continued to dream of an ideal kingdom, just as we do when we lament the state of our world. Yet Jesus’ criticism of political, economic, and religious systems was not structural so much as a reminder to us that power is dangerous. He tried to point us in the direction of an inner wisdom that transforms our minds and hearts into an acceptance of human weaknesses and strengths.
What does this story say to us today? The wise people in Jesus’ time were those who studied the stars and their movements. The stars and what were probably planets are predictable in many ways but also mysterious in meaning. Astrologers were scientists who studied objective facts, but who also reflected on the human condition and discerned how what is above and what is below are all connected. There are some Old Testament passages that condemn stargazers, so it is remarkable that Matthew uses them as models of those who seek the Messiah.
Some questions we can ask ourselves are: Am I among those who are curious enough about the mystery behind and below what I see to be able to change my mind and travel in a new and uncertain direction? And once I move in a different direction can I keep trusting in that slowly moving star, and listen to those around me who have a different understanding from mine? I wonder how often the wise men disagreed about the meaning of that star.
Yet the story also says that once the star had stopped where the child was, they were filled with a joy that led them to give up the treasures they had carried on a long, uncertain journey. Their wisdom had deepened and the journey back to their own country took a different road.
Whatever star we gaze at or road that we travel, let us remember that we carry within us a treasure chest of wisdom that no earthly power can tarnish. May we too be filled with a joy that impels us to give away that wisdom and love.