The wise men were trying to unravel the mystery of life. They had studied the ancient books and searched the stars. They had plotted their journey using the best techniques available to them and planned for a lavish reception at its conclusion, yet they almost missed the news unfolding before their eyes. The magi were probably high-ranking political advisors to the rulers of their countries, modern day Iraq and Iran, so it makes sense that they would travel to Jerusalem, the capital city, and confer with the leader there, King Herod. But the answer they were seeking turned out to be nine miles away, in a backwater town named Bethlehem. When their wandering led them to a poor baby, born of parents in questionable circumstances, they probably bickered about taking a wrong turn somewhere. What child is this?
Their everyday world was parochial and given to violence, so it must have been bracing to encounter this small tribe of people whose prophets spoke of beating their swords into ploughshares and welcoming the stranger as a holy visitor. In W.H. Auden’s poem, “For the Time Being,” the wise men say it this way: “To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow this star.” Who was the first to kneel in his sumptuous clothes at that impossibly humble manger?
Given their revelation, it comes as no surprise that the magi “left for their own country by another way,” according to Matthew’s gospel. On a certain level the wise men were simply being careful as they traveled. One or more of them had had an unsettling dream that suggested they better not retrace their steps or come into contact with Herod again, so they took an alternate route home.
But consider further who they are and how far they have traveled. These counselors are learned philosophers from the so-called fertile crescent, whose libraries and religions are much older than that of the Hebrew people they have met. They have followed a star for many months through a dark desert, carrying symbolic gifts for the one who would be king, and they probably had a pretty good idea of who and what they would find. I imagine they expected the king to embody some version of “might makes right” or “only the strong survive.” But the king they discover is vulnerable and arguably powerless, born in a borrowed room with animals nosing around him. Of course these wise men will go home by another way—everything they were counting on has been turned on its head. What will home be when they get there?
The star they are following illumines the deepest mystery of life: each fragile human person embodies the power to topple kingdoms of greed and violence. Love is born at Christmas.