In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
We began this journey, Bethlehem Bound, with parts of the poem by T S Eliot ‘The Journey of the Magi’.
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
Today, the Feast of the Epiphany, is when we celebrate their arrival, these visitors from the east with their strange ways and significant gifts. The truth is of course that they were not kings – well not as far as scripture records – and there is nowhere that says there was just the three of them. The three comes simply from the three gifts that they presented. But what we do know is that they had come on a long journey to be at this place. They were astronomers, probably, certainly they studied the stars for wisdom and it was in the stars that they saw the sign which told them that the King of the Jews had been born.
It is the twelfth day of Christmas but I imagine that time has moved on much more for the Holy Family. The cribs, even the Minimal Nativity now in the High Altar sanctuary at Southwark Cathedral, do us a disservice. We bring in the figures of the ‘kings’ and put into the background the shepherd boy with his sheep and the older shepherd standing with his pipe, and the sheep and the ox and the hay are still all there. But the reading from Matthew of course mentions nothing about a stable. The stable is all in the Lucan account. As with so much of the use of the Bible in church we mix the stories up to create a helpful narrative and chronology and to give painters and producers of Christmas cards good but inaccurate images from which to work.
The arrival of the Magi in a tapestry by Burne Jones
Matthew says that they came to the house and that
‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother.’
Eliot describes their arrival in this way.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
This passage is crammed full of imagery that resonates with so much that will happen in the gospels – the three trees on the skyline, a hint of Calvary; the vine over the lintel, the precious blood of Christ in the Eucharistic cup and maybe a pointer to the exodus and the marking of the lintels in the blood of the Lamb; the dice, suggesting the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes as the foot of the cross; and those empty wine skins, kicked away in preference for new skins that will hold the new wine of the kingdom.
There is more besides I’m sure. But all Eliot says of the place where the Magi found Jesus was that they found it and that it was ‘satisfactory’. I love that word in this line, it is slightly shocking. We would have thought that it was all more than ‘satisfactory’. But perhaps this has something to do with that ordinariness in the scene that we have noticed throughout this Christmas journey.
So not a stable but a house. The family have moved out of temporary, unsatisfactory lodging into something satisfactory. There is a lovely poem by Frances Chesterton, the wife of the more famous writer G K Chesterton. Her poem, which has been set to music by Howells and others, tells of the arrival of the Magi at their journey’s end. It’s entitled ‘Here is the little door’.
Here is the little door,
lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more,
but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold.
Gold that was never bought or sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about His head;
All for the child that stirs not in His sleep,
But holy slumber hold with ass and sheep.
Bend low about His bed,
For each He has a gift;
See how His eyes awake,
Lift up your hands, O lift!
For gold, He gives a keen-edged sword.
(Defend with it thy little Lord!)
For incense, smoke of battle red,
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead;
Gifts for His children, terrible and sweet;
Touched by such tiny hands,
and Oh such tiny feet.
Chesterton suggests that the child gave back to his children gifts that mirror those that they bring. It is a lovely idea and there at the end is the hint at the passion with the reference to the tiny hands and tiny feet which, when a man’s, will bear the mark’s of nails and become the signs of love.
But at the beginning of the poem she writes
‘lift up the latch, oh lift!’
Lift the latch
I wonder whether, when she was writing this, she had in mind one of the most famous pictures of the Pre-Raphaelite era, ‘The Light of the World’ by Holman Hunt. The two most famous ‘originals’ hang in the stunning setting of Keble College Chapel in Oxford and the equally stunning St Paul’s Cathedral. The image is so well known but one of the most important details is that there is no latch on the outside. Jesus knocks at the little door but has to be let in; we lift the latch. The Magi found the door and lifted the latch and entered the house and found the one for whom they had been searching, the one for whom they had been Bethlehem Bound.
‘The Light of the World’ by William Holman Hunt
Jesus will never force himself into your life, he just isn’t like that. He leaves us in control, to welcome him into our lives, to enter his house, or to stay away and keep him out. It was the last act of the journey for the Magi, to lift the latch and enter the house and find the child and his mother, to worship and adore.
They left by another road, they couldn’t travel the same road again, life for them had been transformed. Eliot concludes his poem
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
Towards the end of the final book in the Bible, the Book of the Revelation to St John, the ‘Evangelist of the Incarnation’, we find these words
‘The first things have passed away….. See, I am making all things new.’
For the Magi and for us all things are new, the old dispensation is no more, there is a new covenant and a new world and we have found it in Bethlehem. But unlike the Magi you have no need to head off, to hurry away. We can stay in the house and linger for Christmas carries on and Christmas always carries on for ‘the Word was made flesh and lived among us’ and that was true then and it remains true now.
Creator of the heavens,
who led the Magi by a star
to worship the Christ-child:
guide and sustain us,
that we may find our journey’s end
in Jesus Christ our Lord.