[This ForeWords post originally appeared on Epiphany Sunday (January 6) in 2011.]
As odd as it probably sounds, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and I share a couple things in common: first, we both have done some writing (he, a famous and influential 19th-century American poet; I write a blog); and, second, we share a birthday (February 27), exactly 144 years apart (1807 – 1951). [Not that it matters much, of course, but it’s a birthday shared by such diverse personalities as Elizabeth Taylor, John Steinbeck, former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Ralph Nader, Josh Groban, Chelsea Clinton, and Emperor Constantine I–yeah, that Constantine.]
But to return to Longfellow: his birthplace, Portland, Maine USA, sits at a latitude of 43 degrees 40 minutes; the position of my birthplace, London, Ontario, Canada, is a mere 38 miles farther south at latitude 43 degrees 2 minutes. Although farther west, it’s still in the same time zone.
Of course, nobody really cares about any of that, including, I must admit, me. But I mention it only because it’s impossible to come up with a more perfectly biblical number than 144 (12 times 12). Naturally, two thousand years ago nobody knew anything about latitude and longitude or road maps to scale. And GPS devices, forget about it. Yet the Magi somehow made their way westward from the Orient, Persia perhaps, simply by studying the stars and following a new one as it moved across the heavens. Even that proved not to be all that precise. That got them to the Roman-controlled territory known as Judea, where Caesar allowed a puppet-king named Herod to exercise some authority.
Perhaps the Magi had somehow also obtained a copy of Isaiah 60, a very old poem in which the prophet urged his countrymen not to give up hope for a future, even though pretty much all of their dreams had been dashed by Babylonian exile. God had not forgotten them, the prophet proclaimed, and a better day lay ahead: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning….They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:3-6).
Matthew no doubt had Isaiah’s promise in mind when telling the story of the Magi and their journey from the east. It would be only natural that they’d end up in Jerusalem, where, as it turned out, King Herod was more than a little curious about their mission. Too bad for all concerned the Magi hadn’t also read from the prophet Micah:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days…. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace. (Micah 5:2-4)
For all the beauty and interest of this story provided only by Matthew, there’s a good many details that the Gospel writer didn’t provide. Believers over the ensuing centuries added details here and there, offering nuances and charm to what began as a simple tale. Most folks, of course, don’t realize what a simple story it actually is in Matthew’s Gospel.
For example, we really don’t know that the Magi were kings or even that there were three of them. We don’t know where they actually came from, how long it took before they arrived in Bethlehem, or even if Jesus was still a baby by the time they presented their expensive (but let’s face it, rather impractical) gifts–well, gold is always nice to get, I suppose! As one of my favorite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor, says, the facts don’t matter as much as the story does because “stories can be true whether they happen or not…. You just listen to the story. You let it come to life inside of you, and then you decide on the basis of your own tears or laughter whether the story is true.”
But what we do know from this story–Truth with a capital “T”–is that the journey to encounter Jesus can be undertaken by rich (Magi) and poor (shepherds) alike. He can be nearby or at the end of a long, confusing, winding journey. We can give up when we encounter “Herods” of various kinds, or we can persevere as did the Magi. And we can offer him room in our hearts. That’s what a journey of faith is all about. We don’t really know the details of its ending, but rather it’s the way we engage the trip along the way that counts.
Oh, and by the way: The names given to those “three wise men”–Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar–for that we can thank none other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who rescued them from obscure medieval legends to use in the opening lines of his poem “The Three Kings.” Longfellow is also responsible for giving us the words to the now-well-known Christmas hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (an interesting tale all its own, but for another day).
Thank you, sir, for offering both gifts to the world.