One year there were a rash of thefts involving the baby Jesus. I don’t think they ever found the one that was taken from the crèche on Independence Mall. I heard of one baby Jesus stolen in the Northeast by an eighteen year old girl who had an apartment overlooking the scene of the manger. I guess she was just mean enough to do it. Or maybe she was a young, deluded girl who just wanted a baby. As it turned out, the police, on the other end of the social scale, also ended up looking for Jesus. Maybe they were mean as they did it. Or maybe they just wanted to figure out what happened. Regardless, it is the season of looking for Jesus.
This next Sunday, our Advent pilgrimage is focused on the people in the nativity story who best represent most of us: the shepherds and wise men. Someplace along the spectrum of low-life shepherds to high-class wise men, you probably fit in. I also think that all of us have an inner shepherd and an inner wise man searching for Jesus — or needing to.
The shepherds get just a few lines in Luke, but their amazing experience gets all the imagination of the carol writers poured on them. That is probably because we all relate to them so well.
The shepherds were chosen from among the locals. I’m not sure how that occured; maybe the angels just happened upon people who were still up in the middle of the night. It is possible that the angel just had a prepared speech to give to whoever he met: “I bring you tidings of great joy, earthling.” But it sounds like these certain poor shepherds might have been selected. I think the angel was actually being sensitive, like he noticed that the shepherds were looking over their shoulders wondering who the angel was really coming to meet, since they were normally among the invisible poor. That’s why he said, “No, don’t be afraid. I’m talking to you. I bring you good news of great joy, good news for everyone, you included. Go to Bethlehem and you’ll see what I’m talking about. “ Then the heavens erupted because this moment must be an especially great thing for heaven to see. The poor receive the love and justice they’ve been missing. A person trampled back into dust has new life breathed into them. This is what angels live for: “Glory to God! This is it! Life. Light. Joy.” It was nuts.
This is where I love to come into the story, along with all the artists. If you get what is going on, you must be eager to show up with your inner shepherd, out in the dark, out alone on a hill, out in the cold, poor in some way, not getting what you need in some way, ragged, mistreated, unnoticed. And the angel comes to you and says for God, “I choose you. Here is my message for you — needy, needy you.” I don’t know if we ever quite fully improve on this, no matter how many Advents we experience. We search out of our darkness. The light terrifies us — but it shows us the way out. We grope through the hills to find that it was just as we were told, again, but we, again, may not have believed it fully before we got there, again.
As for the wise men, the magi (I’m not sure how they got to be three kings except that they came equipped with treasure), they are another story altogether. I think they get less songs and less art because they are from the mysterious places of high finance and deep learning. Plus, they are foreigners to Matthew, who is writing the story. They represent the “gentiles,” people who are called from far away.
Maybe the magi were Persian astrologers. However Mary or Joseph told the story, I am not sure they really knew. When they met them they were probably just glad to get some gold and other things to sell. But we come to find out that these men felt comfortable in King Herod’s court and went there first. And they had the means to travel from the East, across the desert, presumably, where they were getting directions from stars coming up in the West.
We also come into the story with our inner magi needing to get involved, our inner wise person, our king or queen self. We are brilliant, and God calls us in our brilliance just like he called these brilliant guys. We also search out of our light. The lack of a guiding star terrifies us and the presence of one brings us joy. We use our skills to get to some place where we can worship, like all our knowledge and skills told us we should. But we have to get there before we can choose to kneel.
I admit that I resent the way the Augustinian protestants made such an overwhelming emphasis on our dirty shepherd selves. They specialized in convincing us that we are terrible so we would recognize our need for Jesus. They kind of stopped us from appealing to the best in everyone. It appears that Jesus draws the best of the Persians across the desert to worship him. They figured it out. Their astrology even led them to Jesus! Honest seekers after God find a lot of ways to get there. We are all shepherds, but we are all magi, too. We’ve got stuff, we are hopeful, we are ready to adventure. We are all these good things. And if we are not self-sufficient as a result of having them, and we respond to the revelation that is right in front of us — in our law studies, in sociology, in biology, in architecture, if we are searching there, we end up at the proper place to present our treasure.
Advent is the time of year when we celebrate this wonderful both/and:
- God in flesh.
- God present and future.
- Ourselves as shepherds and magi at the manger.
- Being chosen and choosing.
There are a lot of places to fit ourselves into the story, aren’t there? It is “Peace on Earth! Good will to all!” If you are so low that you stole the baby, Jesus will likely influence your apartment. If you angrily searched high and low for the perp who stole the baby, at least the baby has a chance to preoccupy your thoughts.
God chose you where you are, especially if you are shepherdy. God called you from as far away as you have ever been, especially calling all your brilliance into its true service. Each of us is in the story. For us, too, it is “Come and see. Come and worship.”