January 03, 2021
The wise ones were looking for a new king, a child. From their home, many many miles away, maybe somewhere deep in the Persian empire, they had seen his star rising. Astrology was a specialty of these magi, and there was no mistaking what this star meant: regime change. A great king was coming.
So these magi set out to find him. Why, exactly, is unclear: after all, who says a new king is a good king? Generations before, Plutarch described the magi who ascertained the birth of Alexander the Great – they were in great distress as they “ran about beating their faces and crying aloud that woe and great calamity for Asia had that day been born.” So what was it about this king that caused the magi to want to seek him out?
Perhaps they had heard predictions of the great king of Zoroastrian prophecies, described as, quote “a king of righteousness destined to benefit the entire world. His coming was considered to be the prelude to the time of resurrection, the dawn of the future age introducing a glorious reign of justice and peace.” Sound familiar? This king, the Zoroastrians said, was to be born of a virgin.
Had the magi heard the predictions about this good king? And if so, what made them think this star may be his?
All we know is that they set off on a long journey, finally arriving at their destination: Herod’s palace, for where else would they look for the child king but among the offspring of the current one? Though their logic was sound, it also turned out to be useless – the one they sought was not among Herod’s sons. Nor did Herod seem to even know about the newborn king.
The magi had run up against a wall. The star had pointed them to Jerusalem, but the new king didn’t seem to be there. What were they to do? Just turn around and go home? In the end, Herod did turn out to be useful – or at least his access to knowledgeable scribes and priests was useful. These scribes pointed towards Bethlehem, thankfully only a few miles further on. So the magi set off again, this time with the star mysteriously seeming to guide them somehow straight to Jesus.
When the star came to rest above Jesus’ home, Matthew tells us, the magi were “overwhelmed with joy.” Were they just so happy that the journey was over? Because if I were a magi seeking a king and had ended up standing outside what clearly must have been the house of a peasant, I might have had some other feelings besides joy: Doubt. Disappointment. Frustration. Confusion.
But the magi were not deterred. If the star said this peasant baby was their good king, so be it. They did what they came to do: pay homage to the baby, with gifts that, at least now, seem a little odd. Gifts that were certainly fit for an ancient king, but possibly less appropriate for an infant. Myrrh is definitely a choking hazard.
Regardless, I think tradition is right to call these magi wise: not because they knew where to look, nor even exactly WHAT they were looking for. They were wise because they persevered. And when they finally found what they were seeking, they responded with joy, generosity, and humility.
And once they had done what they had come to do, the magi also had the wisdom and courage to practice civil disobedience, refusing Herod’s directive to return and tell him where they had found the child king. No matter their origins, it was probably a little dangerous to run afoul of the representative of Roman authority in this land. They did it anyway. I want to credit Cole Arthur Riley for her reflection on this topic – I had never thought about the magi’s actions as an act of political resistance, but sometimes civil disobedience is subtle. Sometimes it is simply refusing to show up for your appointment with the empire.
This is the story we know of the magi. It’s a story that is filled with profound truths from start to finish. Like the old country song says: we go looking for love in all the wrong places. But it is also true that, as with the magi, our misguided searches don’t have to be the end of the story.
These truths have shown up in my own journey.
Towards the end of my first career, running a youth development organization in which I had mentored a group of children for twelve years, I was looking for a new call. I was ready for an adventure, and wanted to move overseas. In a conversation with a friend who knows me about as well as the Holy Spirit herself (shout out to Katie, who’s here with us today!) I was pointed to Haiti. And so I set out to find a way to get there.
How could I do the most good? I had Masters in Teaching and a resume that revolved around education and youth, but frankly felt like I could use a break from the kids. I scoured the internet, I asked everyone I knew that had connections to Haiti. And then one day, there it was in my inbox: a Fulbright public policy fellowship, an opportunity for American professionals to provide support to foreign governments in their field of interest, in my case ostensibly the Haitian Ministry of Education. A chance to help shape a national education policy – wow!
And so I set off on a months-long journey to my Herod’s palace: writing essays, gathering letters of recommendation, taking a class to brush up on my French. But the effort was worth it, because it was so clearly the logical direction to go.
After four months on this journey, I got the news: I was wait-listed. I was baffled, much as the magi must have felt when their Herod’s palace turned out to be a dead-end: this had really seemed like the thing. And like the magi, I didn’t have any idea where to turn next. Luckily, a few knowledgeable scribes came to my rescue.
“Don’t give up hope,” my friend Joyce counseled me. Her husband, Lyle, had also been waitlisted but ultimately approved for a Fulbright, so she had called to give me a pep talk. Joyce also said, “You know, Lyle’s ex-girlfriend Ellie lives in Port-au-Prince, do you want to talk to her about life in Haiti?” Early on in this journey, I had shared some misgivings about the Fulbright logistics and security policies. I didn’t want to be picked up by a driver in a black car every time I needed to go to the grocery store. I didn’t want to live a life in Haiti that would be devoid of, well, Haiti. But then again, what did I know about life in Port-au-Prince?
“Talk to Ellie. You’ll love her,” Joyce told me.
“She’s your husband’s ex-girlfriend?” I said.
“Trust me,” Joyce said. “Call her.”
Indeed, when we finally got on Skype, Ellie felt like a kindred spirit. We talked about wrestling with the white savior complex. We talked about problematic responses to poverty, we talked about the disasters that US foreign policy had wrought in places like Haiti over the centuries. I trusted her immediately. It was Ellie who told me about SOIL. “If I were to make a list of the organizations in Haiti whose work I really respect, it would not be a long list,” she said, “but hands down, SOIL would be number one,” she told me. I had a new destination. The star was again on the move.
After our call, I googled SOIL: “SOIL operates a service for household composting toilets…” – Wait, what?
A toilet organization? Like literal poop. Perhaps a bit like the magi standing before the humble peasant quarters, I was… surprised.
And yet! The more I read, the more I could see they were doing incredible work. So I jumped on an opening for a Program Assistant position (which, I assured my family, was only *slightly* less prestigious than a Fulbright). I offered my gifts, as odd as they may have been to a composting toilet operation.
My first night in Haiti, I walked with a few of my new co-workers down to a nearby park, where the nightly neighborhood block party was happening: music blared from giant speakers, grills smoked with the scent of barbequing chicken, children ran around the playground, while adults sat sipping cold Prestige, the local beer. As I sat at the picnic table eating my street food while the crowds buzzed around us, I thought of how many of the Fulbright’s security rules I had broken in my first 8 hours of being in-country. Seven and a half years later, I’m sure I eventually broke all of them – I decided quickly that the empire’s expectations had no claim on me.
This is just one magus experience – but I’m guessing most of us have them. Our lives are filled with seeking, filled with journeys, both metaphorical and actual. And so I want to end by letting the truth of the magis’ story ask us some questions here and now, at the start of this new year. Humor me, if you will, and close your eyes, and take a deep breath.
What are you looking for?
Where are you looking? Are you only looking in the obvious place?
Who are the knowledgeable ones that might point you in a new direction?
Are you willing to go to an unexpected place? How will you respond if what you find is not what you imagined?
What are the gifts you have to offer?
Are the powers that be attempting to intervene? Are there ways that you can resist?
Let’s pray: Holy Spirit, we don’t have all of the answers, but we pray for your help to sit with these questions. Because that’s the blessing of a long journey: there’s plenty of time to think. Amen.
 How the Gospels Became History, M. David Litwa