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A long time ago, when we were living in New Jersey, came the news from England by telephone that Frances’ dad was to remarry. In his special way he had phoned on Wednesday to explain that the very next Monday there was to be a low key wedding; Frances was not to worry about it but he just thought she ought to know. I said we had to go to see this thing that had been foretold and so we packed, bought tickets, (no internet in those days) and saying nothing to anyone, flew the Atlantic. Not, as it were, being proper guests, there was doubt about the exact location and difficulty over the time; we bought our gifts somewhere in Oxford and turned up in time for the photographs. There was much surprise in all quarters that we were there at all.
We know our wise men were surprised for naturally they went first to Jerusalem. Where else after all would you look for the King of the Jews? But Herod slyly pushes them towards Bethlehem in Judea and the star, the very same that they had seen in their homeland re-appeared. (It was in its absence, you see, that they had to enquire more conventionally.) It settled over the house where they found the child with his mother. This close reading of Matthew, the only place where the wise men are mentioned, leaves out much of the story that we remember, or we think we remember, and that features on so many of the Christmas cards that I took down on Friday. They are not, firstly, in the stable with the shepherds, who came on the very night of Jesus’ birth, but sometime later, almost certainly at least after the presentation in the Temple and some say even as much as a year afterwards (although I struggle with that). Nor are we sure from where they came. The word Magi is Persian, so some say that is their home while others favour Babylon or Chaldea and we are not ever told that they were three. We imagine that from the number of gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yet the core of the story is that men, not local people of Israel who were nearby and for whom the Messiah was predicted and awaited, men came from afar, Gentiles at that, prefiguring what we know, that Jesus came to save all people. Men of wisdom and wealth came to worship, to offer praise and thanksgiving, overwhelmed with joy they knelt down and paid him homage.
This was their sole purpose; their question in Jerusalem had been: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews, for we have come to pay him homage.” Not you notice to curry favour, or to make a request or even to fulfil a curiosity about what the king was like but to kneel down and worship him. How important that was, they had set out on a long and perilous journey leaving in T S Eliot’s words “the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, the silken girls bringing sherbet” to come and worship.
Family tradition has it that Frances and I came to her father’s wedding; actually we didn’t, we missed the ceremony. We were not in the manger with the sheep and the shepherds, but the core of the story is still true. We came to join the joy of the day and to celebrate and it was important for us to be there; important to make the journey just as it was for the wise men, wherever you think they were from, whenever you think they arrived, however many of them you think there were, the kernel is there. The rich powerful wise, men, kings or princes, prostrated themselves before the Lord.