After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’ they asked. ‘We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’ When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born. ‘At Bethlehem in Judaea,’ they told him ‘for this is what the prophet wrote:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,for out of you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared, and sent them on to Bethlehem. ‘Go and find out all about the child,’ he said ‘and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.’ Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out. And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward, and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.
The story of the Three Kings is one that we are comfortable with; one that we all know. Not least because the Feast Day means we can take down the decorations and start to get back to normal. Except, that, according to the Church’s calendar we should leave our decorations up until the Baptism of the Lord which is next week (those Victorians and their 12 days of Christmas! – Bah, humbug!).
And, of course, there is no evidence that there were three of them or that they were even Kings; except that somewhere along the line someone with too much interest in royal protocol decided that if Jesus was a King then only a King was good enough to visit.
It’s a wonder the shepherds managed to stay in the story, given their reputation as thieves and vagabonds.
But isn’t that the way with stories, we love to add that little bit more; the Chinese whisper effect, the elaboration to suit the culture, the audience, the attitude of the times.
And that is often a criticism of scripture – that it is only stories that often don't add up. It's easier to find the discrepancies, to spend time trying to scientifically prove or disprove this or that. Without appreciating that the truth of a tale is not whether it is factual but what it teaches us.
The account of the Kings/Wise men/Silk Traders is much simpler than it seems. It is an epiphany; a revelation; a showing and sharing of faith.
For Matthew, a Jew writing for Jews, it was an opening up of God’s message to the world. The Messiah was meant for the people of Israel, yet it is the stranger and the pagan who is called, who seeks him out and who acknowledges him. They believe and make real what Herod's scribes had overlooked. They didn't care that they were not 'chosen'; in making the journey, they chose themselves.
And whether they were kings, stargazers or traders it doesn’t matter; they were wealthy; they had knowledge; they understood power; understood what a king was.
Yet something not logical, not explainable, not visible allowed them to hear angels and brought them to kneel in straw and animal dung in homage to two homeless peasants and their dishevelled child. The star, that is the revealing of God’s presence in a human baby, shone in their eyes and their hearts and they believed. They believed with the faith that looked into the mundane and saw God.