Friday, January 6, 2012

One day you finally knew what you had to do

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany when we mark the journey of the wise men -- the Magi -- who come from the East, and follow a star to Bethlehem to find the Christ child and his family. The story of the Magi appears only in Matthew 2:1-12, and nowhere else.

The story leaves more questions than answers. We know almost nothing about these wise men. The gospel does not tell us how many wise men there were, though legend puts it at three. Were they the only ones who saw the star? No one else seems to see it. What did they see that no one else saw? And did they get home again?

The Magi innocently tip off King Herod, who proceeds to murder all the boy infants of Bethlehem to get at Jesus. The Magi leave by another route, warned of what was to happen. Were they chastened by what they had unwittingly unleashed? Were they truly wise in following the star? We get precious few answers from this story.

What are we left with then? It may be some comfort that this legend is probably only that -- a legend that made its way into the Bible to make a larger point. Herod did not massacre the children of Bethlehem, though he certainly killed many innocents. Matthew uses the story to propel Jesus into Egypt so that he can emerge as the "new Moses," and that is the greater message that the gospel writer wants us to hear.

Yet the story is entrancing. The Magi just had to follow that star. The wise thing for the wise men to do would have been to stay home. But they set aside that "wisdom" and followed the star across the continent to a foreign land. The lives they saved were there own, and indirectly ours, too, because of their example. There are times we need take a risk, follow the star, put aside everyone else's wisdom, and go where the star might lead. Poet Mary Oliver captures the idea as only a poet can:

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The Journey
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

1 comment:

Leslie Middleton said...


This is so compelling. I am very grateful for your voice and the wisdom that shines through the gift of your words in this blog. It is lovely when you let the poets speak, whether from ancient Scripture or more contemporary sources. Thank you!