Next time somebody talks about 'dragging religion into Christmas' it might be worth asking how Christians ever came to hijack the Festival in the first place. Long before Christmas there was an annual Festival of the Unconquered Sun which the Romans celebrated on the 25th December. Prior to that there was the Roman Saturnalia which celebrated the Solstice with food and festivities, partying and entertainment and the giving of presents. It was all a time of fun rather than work, when all people were regarded as equal and the poor could rub shoulders with the rich. It was broad and humanitarian, the forerunner of much that we associate with Christmas to this day and focusing on many things we would all like to have in our globalised, pluralistic and multi-cultural society.
Christmas didn’t begin with Joseph and Mary. It took early 400 years for that to emerge when some religious enthusiasts took exception to what they regarded as a pagan celebration and opened their own shop on January 6, and it was nearly another 200 years before the word ‘Christmas’ appears (as Christ’s Mass) before Christians took over December 25 as ‘their day’. So an event which had within it all the seeds of universalism became exclusive, and a faith that was built on the notion of a God who belonged to everybody was claimed as the God of a chosen few. It was almost the resurrection of Judaism.
Something similar happened to the Wise Men who today have a very minor role save in a few hymns and countless Nativity plays most of which are badly flawed. Maybe nobody takes the story literally.
Nor do we have the same view of the stars and their meaning as those Persian astrologers appear to have had and how can anybody really ‘follow’ a star? Anyway, the Greek says it ‘went in front of them’ but is that any better? What’s more, how could they tell when it stopped (though to be fair to the Greek it never says it did), and could anyone locate a particular house as being ‘underneath’. No wonder when preachers come to this passage they take refuge in the slaughter of the innocents. A much more bloody and emotive story.
Time to ask some very basic questions even if we have to be content with some very general answers.
First, who were these Wise Men? All we know is that they were scholarly, wise, almost certainly what we would call astronomers, and they come from the East. That is important because the East suggests the Dawn, the place where things begin. Much more important is that they were Gentiles. They were not ‘believers’. They were not Jews; that is, not members of a favoured nation. Nor were they ‘seekers’; that is, looking for faith. But then neither were they pagans or unbelievers. They had their own life, family, structures, god (or gods), and so faith, and they were just going about their ordinary business.
Second, what happened to them? Well, they saw something, be it a star or a constellation, which awakened something inside them. This calls for our imagination because there is no obvious link between what they saw and what they did. I see three ingredients. One, they seem to be open to something new. Two, they are not sufficiently content with life as it is to ignore it. Three, they see the possibility of something different. In a word, they have Hope and are in a mood to pursue it.
Never mind the idea of a new king in Judah and how that is going to help. Concentrate on the big issue. This message is for everybody, not just believers, because everybody hopes for something, whatever it is and in whatever form it comes, and not usually for something worse, all the time. That’s the point of that first open-ended question. Whose Christmas is it? Who does Christmas belong to?
Third, they pursued their hope. In one sense their hope was fairly clear. They knew what they hoped for and roughly where to find him. In another sense it was very vague. They knew what they hoped for but had no idea how or when or where it might be fulfilled.
So what did they feel when they entered that house? Fulfillment? Disappointment? Or sheer embarrassment? The realisation of that hope was surely not at all what they expected. And all the wrong presents. Heaven only knows what the family said and did after they had left. No wonder they went back by a different route. You would hardly want to meet all the people with whom you had shared your hopes on the journey and have to tell that story.
And we never hear another thing about them which is very surprising when you think how good the ancients were at picking up odd prophecies from the Old Testament and relating them to the Christmas story.
But isn’t that the problem with precise hopes? They so often lead to disappointment. They are not fulfilled in the way we expect and sometimes therefore we feel they have never been fulfilled at all. Browning said,
‘What act proved all its thought had been,
What will but felt the fleshy screen?’
But then of course it might not have been like that at all. These men perhaps were so open to revelation that they were able to change and adjust their hopes and their responses as they went along. So they were just as happy with ‘a two-year-old in a house’ as they would have been with a baby in a palace. Perhaps they understood better than we do that that hopes are really only ever fulfilled when we are prepared to accept that our hopes and visions are limited and allow them to be transformed and ourselves to be changed with them.
T S Eliot’s well-known poem (The Magi) makes an interesting connection at this point. First, he dwells on the struggle of the journey as they pursue their hopes. But then comes the uncertainty. After all the struggle they come down into a valley and think, ‘This is it!’ But it isn’t. ‘There’s no information’. What sort of information (or confirmation) were they looking for. We have no idea, but it surely wasn’t there. The struggle, the journey, the pilgrimage just had to continue. And when they have arrived and presented their gifts what were they saying to each other as they went home?
Eliot says they may have come looking for a birth. Something new. They went away conscious of a death. But what death? The death of their hopes? The realisation that they had got it all wrong and it had all been a waste of times? Or the realisation that all they had ever hoped for had been dross because what they had experienced had given way to a new and richer hope that changed their lives. The great new . . . was only possible through the death of the tawdry old.
Christmas Day is a good time to re-write the story in the light of our hopes and give it an ending. Throughout Advent we all have our hopes. Some clear, some vague. Christmas is when they can be transformed. No need to go back to where we were, as if all our hopes had come to nothing and we were back where we started. Much better to see that the new insight which Christ brings to our hopes can give us a thrill and put everything else we had always hoped for in a new perspective.