St Alban’s Episcopal Church
Monday, January 9, 2023
“…they returned home by another road…”
How did they know?
Earlier Christian art, medieval and before, depicted the three wise men, who were already being remembered as kings, being warned in a dream “not to return to Herod”.
That theme became less popular over the years, but I wonder if it isn’t worth pondering a little before we leave these stories.
The images are everywhere – carved and painted. The three (that number was fixed early, too) are often shown in bed, wearing their crowns – just so everybody knows who they are!
The gospel does not say an angel spoke to them. It says only that “they were warned in a dream” not to return to Herod. But what might that mean? And why might the “messengers” of God, angels be portrayed? And how do three sleeping men have a simultaneous dream? Why not? What do you suppose the story is intended to tell us?
What if it reminds us that God can speak in mysterious ways, and to more of us than one – and all at once – by an angel, or in a vision, or in a dream that we have to work to interpret?
What if the point is to make us able to expect to hear, and to urge us to pay attention to more than meets the eye? What if we need to understand that the logical and the rational are not the only ways to discern truth – maybe not even the best ways? Herod was king, after all. It would have made perfect sense for them to obey his request. They could not have guessed his ulterior motive in asking them to return? It seems they intended to do that. But they didn’t. They trusted their warning, however it came – perhaps having become accustomed to obeying unusual signs – like the star itself – which took them to a humble peasant house – not a palace!
What we call “intuition,” or a strong sense, or an interior leaning towards something – or even a dream – might be the leading of God. The “call” of God. The direction or urging of God.
Maybe we need to pay better attention.
And then what happened?
Joseph, meanwhile, didn’t get the message until the kings had already gone, it seems. And when he did, the Bible says it was an angel who had to come give him the message. “Get up – and flee – Herod is seeking the child to kill him.” And so the family from Nazareth, living temporarily in Bethlehem, fled even farther south, into Egypt, into the land of all Jewish nightmares. They fled as political refugees.
What about that part? What courage does it take to believe a message, however angelic, that sent him right back into what was remembered only as a place of pain, of slavery, of suffering, from which his ancestors had already been delivered?
And what might that have cost Mary in trust, carrying a vulnerable little child: Mary, who had not been privy to that dream? Did it terrify her?
And yet – they went. They story gives a prophetic reason for it – so that God could call his Son out of Egypt again – as God had earlier called Israel the whole people up out of Egypt. It’s wonderful. It makes sense.
And perhaps when we are dragged into a place – spiritual, social or emotional – that we fear and thought we had escaped, it is for the same story-reason: so that God would be known as the one who “called us” out of it?
There is always more to ponder as we hear these stories year after year.
And what about us – when we have been brought up out of “Egypt?” “Love the alien who resides among you, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt.” Deut. 10:19