Shepherds and Magi
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | December 14, 2017Hi friends, today I want to write about the third and fourth candles on our Advent wreath. They remind us of the shepherds and magi, respectively.
This Sunday is the third Sunday of Advent, and our candle is rose. It reminds us of the shepherds we read about in Luke’s Gospel. Basically, the shepherds are out in the fields, just doing their jobs one night, when an angel shows up. They’re terrified—who wouldn’t be?—and the first thing the angel says is, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10). The angel tells them what to look for—“a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”—and then a whole host of other angels appears, praising God. The shepherds do as they were told and take off for Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15).
What strikes me most about the shepherds’ involvement in the birth of Jesus is that they were just doing their jobs when the time came for the Messiah to be born. They weren’t particularly well-educated or knowledgeable. We have no reason to suspect that they were any more or less devout than other folks. It’s a little ironic that the shepherds should have such a central place in the nativity story. Advent is a season of preparation and expectation…and yet the shepherds weren’t especially prepared for or expecting anything!
Perhaps the shepherds are God’s way of reminding us that fidelity in our everyday, mundane work is precisely where an angel might appear to us with good news. That word mundane comes from a Latin word that means “world.” Mundane work is work of the actual world you and I inhabit. Simple, material things: washing the coffee pot, pruning the hedges, keeping your livestock safe. The shepherds are people close to the good earth of the world. In Luke, it is to them that God’s angel announces the birth of the Messiah. And where will they find him? In a manger, a kind of feed bin for livestock that shepherds would know well. The God of the heavens and beyond the heavens has taken on the mundane flesh and blood of the world. The truth is that God is not “up there” or only in Church. God is here, now, in the very fields in which we stand.
The shepherds stand in contrast to the magi, or wise men, of Matthew’s Gospel. We will remember the magi when we light the fourth candle of our Advent wreath next week…even though the magi show up late to the party and don’t arrive until Epiphany!
Unlike the shepherds, the magi didn’t get a visit from an angel. Instead, the magi found out about the birth of Jesus because they were looking for it: “we observed his star at its rising,” they say (Matt. 2:2). The magi were scholars and dreamers. Instead of a manger, they knew where to look because of a star, a far-off light in the heavens. To most folks, it would’ve appeared to be just another star like any other. But the magi were educated and practiced in the art of paying attention. Their eyes and ears were trained to look for significant and out of the ordinary events. They’re seekers who arrive at understanding by asking questions and interpreting events. They make their way to Jerusalem and then begin inquiring, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2).
They follow their peculiar star until they reach the house in Bethlehem where Jesus is. (No stable or manger in Matthew!) They see Mary with Jesus, and they kneel down in homage, presenting to him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:10-11). Their homage and gifts are grand, symbolic gestures. Gold is a symbol of kingship. Frankincense suggests divinity since frankincense was used in religious temples of all kinds. Myrrh was a spiced ointment used to anoint the bodies of the dead in preparation for burial. (See John 19:39.) That the magi offer myrrh to Jesus as a gift suggests that even in his very early childhood, the magi suspected that the powers of the world would conspire against him to bring about his death. Indeed, the magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who immediately plots to destroy the child Jesus (Matt. 2:12-14).
Perhaps the magi are God’s way of reminding us to pay attention, to look for significance in what might otherwise seem perfectly ordinary. Like the magi, one of the ways we can do this is through study, particularly studying the bible. I don’t necessarily mean intensive study of Greek or obscure Israelite genealogies, either. Learning the stories, familiarizing yourself with a parable, or memorizing a few verses from a psalm goes a lot further than we often think. That kind of study helps us to remember that we are a part of God’s story. The magi are no more or less characters in it than you and I. The truth is that no character in God’s story has ever seen the rise of an ordinary star; all is laden with miracle.
God’s angel visits the shepherds in the midst of their ordinary work and tells them where to find Jesus. Had the shepherds not been faithful in the very mundane work of watching their flocks, they would’ve missed it. The magi find Jesus by paying careful attention to the rising of an extraordinary star, one other folks missed or were unable to interpret. Had they not studied diligently and practiced the art of paying careful attention, they would’ve missed it, too. Taken together, the shepherds and magi remind us to be faithful to what is ordinary while always training our imaginations to notice the extraordinary around us.
Most of us have seasons of each. Like a faithful shepherd, you were just doing your job when God intruded. Like a seeking magi, you had an intuition that there’s more out there and have been desperately looking for it. The end is the same for Shepherd and Magus alike. And these are only two of the many roads that lead to the Son of God.