When I was a young boy, my mother and I would lie on a blanket in the back yard and watch the stars come out on summer evenings. She would tell me stories about growing up in Austria and the beauty of the Alps.
As I gazed up at the stars, my mind travelled to far away places. Even at such a young age I knew that we lived paycheck to paycheck. It never occurred to me that I would one day actually visit such places. They were beyond the reach of my family’s resources, but the wings of my imagination were not clipped by the constraints of our material circumstances. The stars themselves seemed to encourage me to dream.
The night sky, and the stars in particular, have ever since had the power to shake me loose from the bonds of my daily habits of thinking about and perceiving my world and to dream about what might be.
By the bright and sometimes harsh light of day the world seems set in predictable patterns that demand resignation or mete out disappointment. But when the stars gleam from the night sky they dust the earth with mystery. There is more to life than meets the eye. Our worldly limitations do not constrain God’s surprising, infinitely generous grace.
Maybe it is my love of starry nights that makes me delight as much as I do in the story of the Magi. All that we know about them is what Matthew tells us. They came from the East following a star.
At the start of their journey they did not know their final geographical location. They simply knew that to follow the star was to arrive someday at a remarkable meeting. A newborn king would grant them an audience at the end of their mysterious road.
It is helpful to me to think about the Magi’s road. I imagine that sometimes they followed established routes. At other times they had to leave the road completely and to ramble through uncharted territory. The star, not the established and safe paths, showed them the way to go.
Surely at various points they thought about turning back or sticking to a well-worn path instead of following that star’s lead. But they persevered. And they met the King of Kings at journey’s end.
You might assume that the star offered the straightest, surest path to Bethlehem. Maybe it did. But I do not believe so. It is more like God to take us on roundabout paths.
That’s what he did with the Israelites centuries before. God led them out of Egypt and then circled them about in the desert for forty years when the straight road to the Promised Land would take only about three weeks.
That is because getting there was not the only point. Who they were upon arrival was crucial. They needed to be the sort of people who could inhabit the Promised Land. In other words, the journey was how they became the People of God.
Maybe this was the sort of journey the Magi had. Criss-crossing deserts and towns and forests, they came by a roundabout way to become the kind of people suited for a meeting with the only Son of God.
They started as Three Kings offering expensive gifts to a brother king. They arrived wearing dusty, road-tattered clothes and smelling only slightly better than they camels they rode. They needed a place to rest, to get a hot meal, and to find shelter. In other words, they were finally ready to meet Jesus Christ.
This was not how they dreamed it would be. They probably saw themselves arriving triumphantly with great fanfare. And yet the reality they experienced at the Manger was greater than anything they had allowed themselves to imagine.
For them, coming before the King of Kings meant winning an audience on the strength of their achievements, their wealth and their station in life. Instead, when they arrived at Bethlehem, they received something far great. They received the love of Christ as a free gift.
Having nothing to offer but their shabby selves—selves in need of serious repair—they could finally see that this was the gift that Christ has come to receive. The gift he has come to repair and to make better than new.