Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
~ Matthew 2: 1-12
I was interested in this picture of the wise men above because of its uniqueness. The focus here seems to be on the journey itself, instead of a scene of worship at the stable. Why did the artist choose to paint this part of the story?
In the scene above, we see many travelers. Who are they? Where are they going? Are they part of the wise men’s entourage? (Did they even have an entourage?) Did these other travelers hear the news about a king being born, too? Did the wise men ask them about the king, or talk to them, on the journey? We do know the wise men did ask Herod, but did they talk to anyone else? How far did they travel? Where did they come from?
I found a short description of this painting below:
“Complementing the narrative of the venerations by the humble shepherds, the Magi, guided by a moving star, traveled separately from their individual lands in the east in search of the newborn Jesus. Tissot depicts the Magi at the moment when their retinues meet in the vast, arid landscape of the volcanic hills on the shores of the Dead Sea between Jericho, the Kedron Valley, and Jerusalem. In his commentary, the artist notes that their flowing saffron robes—a luxurious counterpoint to the simple woolens of the shepherds— signal their status as astronomers.”
Is it true (as the description above says) that they came from varying places and met on the shores of the Dead Sea? Why should these particular Eastern magi (magicians? astronomers?) be led to the star? When they saw the star in the sky, they recognized an extraordinary event had taken place. They knew a king had been born. How did they know what the star meant? When they saw the star they “rejoiced with exceedingly with great joy”. And when they found the baby Jesus, they fell down and worshiped him.
Imagine their relief at the end of such a long journey. They saw a sign in the heavens and followed it, not knowing for sure what they’d find, but knowing it was something quite remarkable. Did they have hardships on the journey? Did they have doubts about what they’d find? Was there a mixture of excitement, anticipation, fear, trembling, and awe? We don’t know all of these details, but we do know they know they were compelled to go, they were overjoyed about finding that same star in Bethlehem, and they worshiped Jesus when they found him.
My two boys and I visited my 100-year-old Jewish neighbor yesterday. How many things he has seen in his 100-year journey! I knew it was day one of Hanukkah, and also Christmas Eve. He turned 100 earlier this month. He looks the same as he did last year, when he turned 99, his mind is still sharp, and his memory excellent. I made a couple of loaves of pumpkin cranberry bread and took him some. I’m not sure if it’s kosher, or if he’ll eat it, or is even able to eat it (he eats very little), but I took it anyway. He’s always so happy to see us, so happy to be “remembered”, always pleased that “we think of him”. He is always dressed for the day and so polite – and we stop by unexpectedly (though we call first).
Mr. B keeps up with politics and current events, he knows so much about what is going on, and doesn’t miss a beat. My son, who also keeps up to date with politics and current events, asked him what he thought about the U.S. abstaining on the vote by the U.N. Security Council which condemns Israeli settlement construction. So Mr. B shared his thoughts; this was received very unhappily by Israel’s leaders, as well as Mr. B. He said they’d been trying for so long and they finally did it.
Mr. B said people all over the world visit Jerusalem; it is visited by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. What other city in the world is like that? So we talked very briefly about Israel and Jerusalem and that he visited years ago. I will have to remember to tell him my daughter is going to Israel in May with a group of college students – he would be interested in that, I think. (I personally think I need to ask to go as a chaperone! I wish! :)
Mr. B is intrigued by the Christmas tree; it isn’t the first time he asked about it. (He told me last year he wanted to see my tree, so I invited him over). He says the trees and lights look so cheerful from outside. He asked us if we’d have a “midnight mass”. I think he finds it intriguing. My son tried to explain to him we aren’t Catholic and we have a service, but it isn’t a mass, and it is earlier. It is interesting how many people in the world think Christians are Catholic or worship like Catholics. I invited Mr. B to come to Christmas Eve service with us; sadly he said he isn’t able to stay out, even for an hour, at his age, because of certain physical limitations. I was disappointed, quite frankly. I know he doesn’t even visit his own synagogue, but I thought he’d find a Christian service interesting, because that is the sort of person he is; not put off by the invitation but curious. The purpose wasn’t to try to convert him, as I’d tell him, just letting him understand how Protestant Christians worship and simply listening and learning, and hopefully, enjoying it. He says most American Christians are nominal; I said we are not. He doesn’t have too many opportunities left.
When we left, my son said, “Sometimes, I wonder if Mr B believes in God at all.” (Mr. B’s expressed some doubts and made some cynical statements in the past.)
I said that maybe it’s true. Or maybe he just has doubts, sometimes, like many of us do. It is possible to have doubts and still believe; in fact, often the doubts lead us to a deeper place of faith. My son agreed and understood that. But, we still wondered about Mr. B. A person can spend 100 devout years of practicing his religion, and still not believe. Is he sad? Is he hopeful? Does he wonder what the purpose of his life is, what it has been? What if you had spent 100 years and still did not know?
Mr. B jokingly said he thinks he’s way too old, he’s outlived his money, he’s outlived many people, too, he has arthritis, he needs a hearing aid… he’s indicated on more than one occasion he isn’t so sure what a good thing living so long is, because it is such a struggle. It pains him to move; he is slow and home-bound, and by himself most of the time. (I realized how flippantly I have thought how living to a very old age is a very good thing, a blessing of some sort. Is it always?)
On this visit, we learned also that he lost his son nearly 40 years ago, when his son was 62. His son had a piece of shrapnel lodged in his kidney during the Yom Kippur War. The doctors wanted to remove the kidney, but the son refused. Later on, that shrapnel led to cancer, and his son died. Mr. B said his son was young and didn’t want to lose that kidney, but he should have had it removed, and that he plans to give 1/3 of his inheritance to his widowed daughter-in-law. He has 2 other children who live in the area. They still get together every Friday evening for a Sabbath meal.
When he made those remarks again about his age and such, I intentionally said to him, “God must have a purpose for you to be here.” I wanted to hear his response to that. Did he agree? Did he disagree? What does he think his purpose is? How can he live out that purpose in his circumstances? I hoped to hear his thoughts. He acknowledged my question, he listened, but said nothing. Even with doubts he’s expressed, he has lived his life faithfully observing the Sabbath and other things – being Jewish is his identity. The topic of God isn’t an awkward one; it is part of who he is and normal for him, so the question is one that he would take seriously. I am sure he has given this considerable thought. I wonder what his Rabbi would say to that question. What do they teach about one’s purpose? (His Rabbi visits him every week, and they have interesting conversations. I told my son he should just go and listen to them talk and ask them questions.) I’m also wondering how are they instructed to wait; how do the rabbis speak to the people about waiting, since they are waiting for the Messiah?
I wonder if anyone is writing down Mr B’s stories? I always think what a sad thing it is to have these memories and stories to just… die away?
Yesterday night my boys and I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life”. My younger one didn’t remember seeing it before, and the older one had forgotten some of it. “Good movie,” he said, afterward. I was glad to hear that, after the two of them have spent free evenings this past month watching all of the previous Star Wars movies in preparation for seeing the newest one, which they are planning to do this week. A couple of days ago, I did watch the latest one with them, that was released last year. I have to admit, I can see their appeal, but… I could take it or leave it, because there are a dozen other things I’d rather do. I watched because they asked me to, and I have only seen about half of them, and that was many years ago. They have to tell me what’s going on. Their discussion after the movie included this burning question: “Who is Rae? Ray? (I’m not sure how to spell her name.) Is she Luke Skywalker’s daughter? The light saber called out to her.” I’m not sure if the next movie has the answer, because of the confusing non-linear way they’ve put out these movies, which I admit, I don’t really want to take the time to figure out. The universe will have to wait to know some of these answers!
Thinking about journeys and 100 years of living… that is something not to take for granted. We don’t know how many years we each have, but most of us do not have one hundred. We each have a purpose in this universe to fulfill, in the time we are here on earth. I wonder how many of us know what that is. This is one question Google can’t answer. Even if you spend 100 years on earth, you could still die and not know. Sobering thought.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. ~ John 1:14 (NIV)
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish. ~ John 1:14 (The Message)
The purpose came, dwelt among us, was one of us, and that is what we celebrate at Christmas. Hope, joy, purpose. Reconciliation between us and God. Those we meet while we are on earth, on this earthly journey, are desperate to know.