Christmas is a time when the Christian message is presented to a far wider audience than is normally the case. Church congregations are swollen for nativity plays, carol concerts and special services that may be for some the only time in the year they go to church. The season is like a bright star in the Christian year. A challenge to all people as Isaiah says to 'Lift up your eyes and look about you'.
The star that led the magi, the wise men, on their search for the infant king, although bright in the heavens was one of thousands of other stars. On a clear night on Exmoor the extent of this vast array of light can be appreciated. But the wise men studied the stars for messages, for opportunities, for challenges that lifted their lives from the mundane and focused their attention on a higher target, a nobler cause. 'Lift up your eyes and look about you.' If they hadn't looked up, they would have missed the challenge. The world today is full of remedies for the trials of life. We are urged to find peace and relaxation by listening to the right radio station, to find fulfilment in creating the best garden or by following fitness regimes and diets. All these things compete to raise our quality of life but must not be allowed to crowd out the search for spiritual fulfilment and a greater knowledge of God.
Once the message had been received, the good news recognised, the wise men did not stop there. They set out to follow it through, not knowing exactly where it would lead them, but having faith in their conviction that the sign was pointing to something good. The journey they were to undertake would certainly have put them through hardship and danger. We don't know how many hundreds of miles they had to travel, whether on camels or other forms of transport, but any journey at that time was a major undertaking, difficult for us to understand in an age when we can find our way to anywhere we want to go in comparative comfort. How much are we prepared to put ourselves out in following the path that God leads us in.
In the course of that journey the wise men had to be prepared to adjust their expectations. The sign, telling them of the birth of a great king, naturally led them to believe that the place to find this King was in a great palace. They looked for advice from Herod and his advisors. They were not distracted from their quest when they realised that what they were aiming for was going to be very different from what they had first imagined. Their minds remained open. They might have passed on west to Egypt or beyond had they stuck to the idea that the King they were searching for could only be born in a royal palace. Instead they were prepared to act on the strength of ancient writings of what was almost certainly a foreign religion to theirs and turn towards Bethlehem, a decision confirmed by the resighting of the star over the house where Jesus was staying. I wonder if we are as open minded to the messages God has for us in different forms of worship and teaching. Are we open to the perspectives of other denominations, other faiths even, in our journey of discovery.
Arriving at the house the Magi presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gifts that are symbolic of all God wants from us. Our Gold is all that we gain from the material world. We are not all called to cut ourselves off from the benefits of the society in which we live. It is not a crime to become rich, but we have a duty to give back to God that which he has provided by sharing with those less fortunate, whatever you do for the least of my brothers you do unto me. Incense is symbolic of reverence and respect, used in rite and ritual in many of the world's great faiths. In the Lord's prayer very early on we recognise that God's is to be 'hallowed'. If others see the high regard we have for God, that we don't use his name lightly, as is common in films and the media, then perhaps they may want to find out for themselves what is so special. Myrrh is symbolic of care, whether for healing or relieving discomfort, it is also used in embalming the dead. Since Adam and Eve we were called to care for God's world, to be stewards of his creation, and that includes caring for each other, looking after the sick, comforting the downhearted, relieving pain and suffering.
So the story of the wise men is a picture of our own religious commitments. We are called to be aware of God and actively seek for his messages to us. We are called to follow him in our own faith journeys, even when that means sometimes rethinking the path we should be taking, and even when that path leads through hardship or discomfort. And he calls us to give of our resources, to respect and revere him and care for him in those around us, spreading his love in all our relationships.