On the Seventh Day of Christmas
Text: Matthew 2:1-10
In the festive song of this season, “Seven swans a-swimming” highlights the seventh day of Christmas. Swans are lovely creatures but I want to propose a new focus for today. I suggest we welcome “the seven Magis a’ traveling.” Some will push back and say, “That’s a terrible idea, Gary. After all, there were not seven Magi, only three.” To which, I say, “Matthew never says how many Magi there were. Since we hear about three gifts, we assume there were three Magi, but why not seven?”
Most folks today cannot name the first five books of the Bible, but they can tell you about the Magi whether there were three or seven or seventy. They can tell you about the wise ones who followed that fateful star, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to give to the infant king. They can also tell you that the Magi brought trouble with them. They stirred up the curiosity and animosity of King Herod who sang his not-so-lilting lullaby about wanting to bring his own gifts to the infant king.
Matthew wants us to know that God’s good news always has its enemies; that grace for all is a threat to those who would hold power only for a few. One has but to love to arouse hatred, to speak truth to awaken a network of deception and lies.
For many people today, the story of the Magi seems arcane and irrelevant, and somewhat embarrassing. Matthew says, “Not so fast.” He tells this story to remind us that the child we follow was born in rags, lest we neglect those who still live in them, was forced into exile, lest we neglect those who are aliens in the land, was executed for trumped-up reasons, lest we neglect those who die in our prisons because of justice denied.
Years ago, Frederick Buechner, the novelist and Presbyterian minister, wrote a first-person piece about one of the Magi that still reminds us of a story we would be wise to embrace. Buechner writes:
“Herod was a lost man, you see, even though he was a king. Neither really a Jew nor really a Roman, he was at home nowhere. And he believed in nothing. ‘Go and find the child,’ the king told us, and as he spoke, his fingers trembled so that the emeralds rattled together like teeth. ‘Because I want to come and worship him,’ he said, and when he said that, his hands were as still as death. Death. I ask you, does one need the stars to reveal that no king has ever yet bowed down to another king? He took us for children, that sly, lost old fox, and so it was like children that we answered him. ‘Yes, of course,’ we said, and went on our way.
“Why did we travel so far to be there when it happened? Why was it not enough just to know the secret without having to be there ourselves to behold it? To this, not even the stars had an answer. The stars said simply that he would be born. It was another voice altogether that said to go – a voice as deep within ourselves as the stars are deep within the sky. But why did we go? I could not tell you now, and I could not have told you then, not even as we were in the very process of going. Curiosity, I suppose: We wanted to see for ourselves this One before whom even the stars are said to bow down – to see perhaps if it was really true because even the wise have their doubts.
“So finally, we got to the place where the star pointed us. It was at night. Very cold. The Innkeeper showed us the way that we did not need to be shown. He was a harebrained, busy man. The odor of the hay was sweet, and the cattle’s breath came out in little puffs of mist. The man and the woman. Between them the king. We did not stay long. Only a few minutes as the clock goes, ten thousand, thousand years. We set our foolish gifts down on the straw and left.
“I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the newborn child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left – giving only our gifts, withholding the rest. And now, my friends, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: That to live without him is the real death, and that to die with him is the only life?”
On this seventh day of Christmas, may we follow the star and the Magi not simply into a new year not much different from the past year, but into a new or renewed faith in a child destined to lead us into life.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, dear friends.