December 10th – Steve Jungkeit – with audio

Texts:  Matthew 2: 1-12

To Follow That Star

            “This is my quest; to follow that star; no matter how hopeless; no matter how far.”  Those are the words that Don Quixote sings in the musical Man of La Mancha, words that I’m grateful we were able to hear from Brian Cheney and Simon.  The musical is very loosely based on the great novel by Cervantes, which I spent much of the summer and fall reading.  It’s a novel about the wisdom of folly, and the folly of the so-called wise.  You likely know the story, or at least a version of it.  Alonso Quixano is an aging landowner in early 17th century Spain, and he reads so many novels that he loses his sanity, thereafter assuming the name of Don Quixote of La Mancha and riding into the countryside on his emaciated horse Rocinante, along with his faithful squire Sancho Panza, in order to renew the tradition of courtly love and honor and to set to right the injustices of the age.  Comic misunderstandings abound, and Don Quixote’s family and friends conspire to trap him and bring him back home, a place that, for the Don, bears all the features of a prison.  Three times he breaks free and ventures into the countryside on adventures, dreaming his impossible dreams, following his unreachable star.    

Quixote has been on my mind, and so it’s no surprise that when we entered the season of Advent, and as I began to think about the characters surrounding the Christmas story, the wise men took on shades of folly akin to Quixote that I haven’t been able to shake.  You’ll notice on our communion table two sets of statues – on  one side we have Quixote and Sancho Panza, and on the other we have the wise men, stories that I’ll be running together this morning.  To follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far – are those not words that could just as easily describe the mad journey of the wise men, guided by a star toward the Bethlehem event?  They’re deemed “wise” in Matthew’s text, the only Gospel in which they appear, and generations of Christmas hymnody and pageantry and iconography have given the impression of three sage men, who alone discerned the stars correctly.  A closer examination reveals characters who may have been closer to Quixote than not, closer to folly than what usually passes for wisdom.  While the appearance of the wise men usually comes after the birth of Christ, it’s their mad quest, born of an impossible dream, that I’d like to think about this morning.  That journey, that quest, yields several insights that are valuable on our own journey toward Bethlehem this Advent season.

Who were those ancient sages, and where did they come from?  Matthew’s text gives us precious few clues.  Tradition tells us that there were three.  It’s true that three gifts are mentioned, but Matthew’s story doesn’t specify the number of travelers on that journey.  There could have been two, or three, or twenty for all we know.  Tradition tells us that they were from Persia, where present day Iran is located, and that their practice of consulting the stars marked them as ancient Zoroastrians.  Perhaps, but the text says only that they came from the East, and were magi, or astrologers.  Nevertheless, they came.  They set out.  That basic truth constitutes the first important insight we can draw from these old astrologers.  They discerned a message in the stars, and it proved compelling enough to load up their pack animals, to kiss their wives goodbye, and to set out on a perilous journey across deserts and through villages where God only knows what dangers awaited.  Were they ridiculed when they set about making their plans?  What did they tell their children about what they were doing?  How did they explain their quest?  Perhaps a few in their community understood their reasoning, but a more likely refrain might have been: “What difference would it even make, even if you are reading the stars aright, even if something is poised to take place, what difference could it possibly make to travel thousands of miles just to see something?”  Perhaps they discerned something true in the stars, the way Quixote discerned something true in his books of chivalry, but that no more made it necessary to launch an expensive and arduous journey than discerning the motion of the planets makes it necessary to travel to the moon.   

Soren Kierkegaard wrote about the difference between the wise men, and the scribes mentioned later in the story, after the travelers have entered the courts of Herod.  Kierkegaard notes that it’s movement and motion that set the wise men apart from the scribes, for while the court scholars could explain where the Messiah was to be born, they remained quite nonplussed there in Jerusalem.  Though Jerusalem and Bethlehem are only several miles apart, the scribes stay put, while the magi continue on.  “The scribes were much better informed, much better versed,” Kierkegaard writes.  “They sat and studied the Scriptures like so many tenured professors, but it did not make them move.  So too, he says, “we may know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement.  The power that moved heaven and earth leaves us completely unmoved.”[1]

Which one are you – a scribe, or a magi?  What earthly difference does this rumor of divinity in the hay make to you?  Is it, as so many Hallmark cards have it, just a pleasant reminder to be nice, or kind, or compassionate, or does it involve something more, something that unhouses us, sending us into the desert on a mad quest whose outcome is far from certain?  Does this rumor impel us toward motion, or is it the kind of thing that we know, while never letting it interrupt our just-so-orderly lives?

But let’s confront another important feature of the story.  Matthew’s text is very specific about placing the birth within history.  What’s more, the text places it within political history.  “In the time of King Herod,” the passage begins, which is a way of conveying what sort of world Jesus was entering, and what sort of world the wise men, those ancient Quixotes, were visiting.  We know some things about Herod, that he had ordered two of his sons to be strangled on suspicion of conspiracy, for example, and that he had ordered one of his wives killed.  We know that around the time of Jesus’ birth, some three hundred public servants were executed, again, for suspicion of conspiracy.[2]  Matthew’s text confirms that cruelty in the story of the slaughter of the innocents, when children under the age of two are killed because of Herod’s raging paranoia.  The point, however, is this: when Matthew introduces his story by telling us that it took place during the time of King Herod, he’s introducing politics into his story, telling us that Jesus was born in a time of political repression and terror.  Everything that follows in the text, from Jesus’s public ministry through the events of Holy Week, is set against that backdrop.  Even so, note that it doesn’t deter the wise men.  They journey toward the star, even as it leads them directly toward a scene of tension and conflict. 

Last week I listened to a radio program on NPR about the tax bill, and how portions of it allowed religious institutions to engage in direct political action, without jeopardizing their tax exempt status.  Most of the listeners were rightly concerned about that development, and they argued, again, quite rightly, about the separation of church and state in our country.  But I was stunned by the simplicity of the assumptions about those twin realities, religion and politics.  Without exception, those listeners ceded any kind of public moral dimension to religion, arguing that religion ought to be a private matter of the heart.  So too, politics was imagined only along the lines of electoral gains and losses, rather than a long conversation about how we organize our lives together.  No one seemed to remember the biblical and theological foundations of the civil rights movement, of how that movement took shape in churches.  No one recalled the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, or the women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th century, both of which found their origins in a reading of the gospels.  No one mentioned the biblical foundations of the abolitionist movement, or the fact that much of the impetus toward those reforms came from the pulpit.  And no one, but no one, noticed that the story of Jesus told in this season is couched in explicitly political terms: “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered,” Luke’s Christmas story begins.  “In the time of King Herod” is how Matthew begins his narrative.  A star shines and a child of hope is born precisely into that drama and not outside of it, within the public sphere, and not simply in the private recesses of the heart.  “The time of King Herod” is the world the wise men choose to enter.   

Even so, we shouldn’t miss another crucial nuance about those ancient Quixotes, those half mad astrologers tracking that star across the whole of the Middle East.  The detail is this: by the time they arrive in Jerusalem, the trail has gone cold, and the star has ceased to shine.  And it’s here that the wise men make a terrible error.  In the absence of GPS devices or gas stations from which they might seek direction, they show up at Herod’s palace, reasoning that if a king is to be born, surely it would occur in such a place.  Later in the story, the star reappears, helping them to locate their hope not in the palace of the king, but among a poor peasant community outside the city.  But how should we understand the star’s disappearance?  Was there something within the magi that clouded its presence?  Were they prone to place their hope and trust in palaces?  Were they tempted, the way many religious folk in our day are tempted, by the blandishments of political power?  We can’t say, except to note that something clouded their vision, leading them to enter Herod’s palace, inquire after the new king, and set in motion a chain of events that the magi couldn’t have foreseen.  Those events include the murder of the city’s children, and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’s refugee status in Egypt, forced as they are to flee the terror.  And it’s all caused by the wise men, who prove to be less than wise in that particular moment.  There are grave consequences, sometimes, when we lose sight of our guiding star.  The wise men learn that even if their hope has a public dimension, it doesn’t reside within palaces.  It’s only after they depart the palace, training their attention away from it, that the star reappears, guiding them toward their ultimate destination at the manger.  It’s a lesson for all of us who care about public affairs.  If we are looking for hope, we must remember that it is not found primarily in kings, presidents, and prime ministers, but rather in villages, ghettos, favelas, and barrios, far outside the capitols and centers of finance.  The star leads to a peasant village, not a palace mansion.  

By the story’s end, after some twists and some fateful turns, the wise men do find the child, the source of their hope.  They do pay him homage, and they deposit their gifts, frankincense, gold, and myrrh.  They sense his greatness, but they also sense his end.  The gift of myrrh indicates that apprehension of death, for it was a resin used for embalming bodies.  They sense it all, they take it all in, and then they return home, as the text tells us, “by another road,” having consulted not the stars, but their dreams.  What becomes of those ancient astrologers when the story has concluded?  How does chasing the star change them?  What’s it like to encounter a revelation, a god incarnate, but then to have to return home? 

T.S. Eliot imagines the return in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.”  It’s narrated from the perspective of one of the magi, and it concludes this way: “All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down, This set down, This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.”

I don’t understand Eliot’s words as a wish for the termination of life, as if encountering Jesus had somehow elicited a depressive and suicidal impulse within the magi.  I understand the “other death” for which the magi would be glad to be that within him that hinders the fullness of life that he experienced at the manger, that which diminishes and prevents a life of flourishing, that which still clings to the appurtenances of power evidenced in their encounter with Herod.  I understand the “other death,” for which he longs, to be that within him which veers toward despair, or nihilism, or lassitude.  I understand it as a wish to return, again and again, to the scene of the manger, as we each of us do year by year, to be reminded of that hope born in a donkey’s stall.  The Scriptures don’t tell it, but I like to imagine that perhaps one day, those old magi ventured forth again, returning to find the lowly one they had once worshiped, entering the new dispensation once and for all.

And what of you, and me?  It turns out that the saga of those ancient wise men, those old Quixotes, is a story about each one of us.  Aren’t we all called, each in our own way, to mount our Rocinantes, to saddle up our pack animals, and to ride forth?  Aren’t we all called, each in our own way, to dream impossible dreams and to follow unreachable stars as those astrologers of old?  It’s a story about what it means to be set in motion, rather than simply remaining at home with all of our insights and knowledge.  It’s a story of what it means to be guided by a rumor, a fleeting sign, a flimsy and impossible dream, one that cannot help but seem foolish to the respectable, but that might be more true than all of the good sense and learning and common wisdom that the world has ever known.  It’s a story about what it means to lose our way from time to time, and to wind up in the wrong company.  And it’s a story of what it means to live in the in between, having glimpsed a reality that is too good not to be true, even while being forced to take up residence within the old dispensation.  We know what it means to live in the old dispensation.  And we also know what it means to come to the manger year by year, and to pay homage to the birth of this child of hope called the Christ.  And yet the world grinds on.  A shooter takes aim.  Powerful men consider women their prey.  Jerusalem becomes a bargaining chip for yet another palace ruler.  Refugees shiver as winter sets in, and the impossible dreams of another year seem just that – impossible.  We know what it means to live in the old dispensation.

And yet the star still shines.  It still beckons and calls and lures and prods us out of our stasis and into movement.  The star still calls forth the Quixotes and the wise men and women alike in each one of us, asking us to dream impossible dreams.  The star disappears from time to time, it’s true, and we do lose our way, but I believe it’s there still, if only we’d notice, waiting to lead us to the manger, waiting to shake us free of the old dispensation that weighs upon our souls and shackles our feet.  It waits, to set us in motion, this impossible dream, this unreachable star.


[1] Soren Kierkegaard, as found in the book Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Farmington: Plough Publishing, 2001), pgs. 288-289.

[2] Ibid, pgs. 290-291.

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