I recently learned about an organization called “Magicians Without Borders.” Founded in 2002, this organization brings magic shows and magician training to impoverished or disaster-stricken countries places all over the world, including the U.S. The organization’s founding philosophy is based on something the world’s most famous magician, Harry Houdini, held to be true: the purpose of magic is not just to amuse and entertain, but to awaken hope that the impossible is indeed possible. Helping people to believe the impossible is the star the Magicians Without Borders follow.
The Magi in today’s Epiphany story cross borders and boundaries to get to Jesus. They follow a map made of stars and dreams to get to a newborn king. They go in search of the impossible, and they find it. We don’t know much about them, although much has been written through the ages. They have been given names: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. Or Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. They have been said to have come from Babylon, Persia, India, Yemen, or China. We know from scripture only that they came from the East. They were foreigners, strangers. They might’ve been kings, wise men, astrologers, or magicians, seers who saw what others didn’t see.
These three knew something that made them leave their own setting, take a risk, cross borders, and go off on an adventure bearing gifts fit for a king. In ancient tradition, that something they knew was in the star they followed. Matthew, wanting, as is his custom, to ground the story in Jewish tradition, inserts a quote from Micah about Bethlehem and Israel’s next shepherd. What matters is not how they knew, but that they knew, and that they went.
The Magis’ journey holds an important place in our own yearly travels through the stories that undergird our faith and witness. In the calendar, Epiphany—this manifestation of Christ to foreigners—marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas. The season of Epiphany puts words and music to the journey into what it means to witness to impossible Good News , to witness to the Kingdom this infant king came to proclaim. If we look, we can find in this beloved, familiar story some of the elements of our call to be citizens of God’s Kingdom.
The Magi, these wise astrologer-king-magicians, crossed boundaries to get to Jesus. They took risks, went to a place where perhaps they didn’t speak the language, where people didn’t dress like them or think like them. They stepped out of their comfort zone as Jesus throughout his life will tell his followers to do.
For most of you, this place is not a foreign country. Nevertheless, I wonder: What star guided you here tonight? Why did you come? What is it about this impossible flesh-and-blood baby king that compels you?
The three visitors questioned the status quo. In this story, the status quo is Herod, but it could be the elected leaders of our own time, or our family, or the religious tradition you grew up with, or one’s own inner voice saying: “I’ve always done things this way. I cannot change.”
They brought gifts, not just any gifts, but gifts of extravagant generosity. Extravagant generosity is how we are invited to worship God with our whole selves, with our lips and with our lives.
Like people who had just heard life-changing, world changing news, the three visitors trusted their instincts and went home by another road. They were changed. They were wise enough to know that worshiping this newborn Messiah would end up being a dangerous business. They took a different way home. What will change for you, this night, this week, this season….what road will you take home?
Crossing boundaries, questioning the status quo, bearing gifts, choosing a new road…these are elements of our call to see the Kingdom of God as it comes near, marks of discipleship. Our road map, if you will.
This year we get to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on a Saturday night. Tomorrow we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, so we could think of the Epiphany moment as the Eve of the Baptism of our Lord, preparing us to commit, once again, to our baptismal vocation. We will renew the promises we made at baptism, the promises that bind us to continue the ministry begun in Jesus of proclaiming the Kingdom of God in flesh and blood, that proclamation made first to the shepherds, then to the Magi, then to all of us. In the meantime, let us pray that we will always be able to draw back the curtain onto the Kingdom, to follow the star the Magi followed, to see what the Magi saw when they arrived, and to choose the road that will bring us home.