If there is anything we do well in this country, it is observing an abundance of holidays. Starting from New Year's to Martin Luther King Day to President's Day to Valentine's Day to Ash Wednesday to Easter to Spring Break to Arbor Day to Mother's Day to Memorial Day to Flag Day to Father's Day to Independence Day to Labor Day to Columbus Day to Veteran's Day to Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas and back again, we know how to observe a holiday. And these are just the major holidays. To this list, we could add St. Patrick's Day, Mardi Gras, Cinco de Mayo, April Fool's Day, and on and on.
But may I suggest that most of us have missed a holiday? And not just any holiday but one that would extend the Christmas season. Now, I understand that Christmas already starts sometime before Halloween, but hear me out. On Jan. 6, much of Latin America is celebrating El Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos, Three King's Day. Think for a moment about the possibilities of incorporating this holiday into the American calendar: no work or school until well after New Year's and an extra day of presents. We can procrastinate even longer before we take down the Christmas lights.
In all seriousness, El Dia de los Tres Reyes is an important holiday for our sisters and brothers in Latin America. It was a significant day for my own family growing up. The day requires plenty of preparation from children in particular. On the evening of Jan. 5, children will collect a shoebox full of grass and a large container of water for the Magi's camels and place the items underneath their beds. In the night, the three kings will come into their rooms, take their supplies and leave a present under each child's bed. With Jan. 6, the Christmas holidays will come to an official and liturgical end, and life will go back to normal.
Because many of us don't celebrate this holiday, the story of the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12 often gets neglected in our Christmas celebrations. It seems to me that we don't hear many sermons about the Magi or think much about their significance in the story of the infancy of Jesus. But let's take a few minutes today and reconsider this profound story.
Who exactly did Matthew imagine these Magi were? It is very hard to say who they were or from where they came. We can safely say that these Magi were likely astrologers who carefully observed the night skies looking for great signs and portents. Having seen a brilliant star, they see the signs of the time and sense that something special is happening in history. They likely came from some distance in the East, but it is difficult to be more specific than that. In the end, therefore, we can know very little about these eastern visitors.
We can be pretty sure that there weren't just three wise men. Nowhere in the story are we told how many wise men were in this retinue. The only reason the number three comes up is because the Magi bring three types of gifts. My guess is that Matthew imagines a large company of travelers. The trip was obviously long, and the road was dangerous. So a large caravan would be safer and far more practical than three men traveling by themselves.
The Magi first come to King Herod and ask, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" Let's consider for a moment the gravity of this question. In Herod's mind, there is not a king of the Jews except him, and certainly no child is going to take his place. Even asking such a question is an act of political treason, but Herod is curious and also completely insecure. It's not obvious quite yet in Matthew's narrative (see Matthew 2:16-18), but Herod was a cruel, oppressive ruler. His cruelty will soon become explicit in Matthew's account, but for ancient readers Herod's reputation required no explanation.
If Herod felt his power was threatened, he would lash out violently even against his own family. One historian from that time said of Herod -- who, remember, was at least marginally Jewish -- that it was safer to be a pig in Herod's house than one of his own children. He killed several of his children suspecting them without reason to be plotting against him. When he knew his death was imminent, he ordered that a litany of men be executed so that there would be some grief in the land, even if it weren't for him. Obviously, Herod's interest in this baby is not the same as that of the Magi. Even on this day of epiphany, threats against the Christ child abound.
In the midst and in the wake of Christmas revelry, we should remember that while the angels proclaimed, "Joy to the world!" the kings of the earth trembled. When the promise that the world would be turned upside down by a mere child was proclaimed, the powerful only saw a threat to be exterminated.
Finally, the Magi receive the word for which they've been waiting, and they head to Bethlehem to find the Messiah. Just imagine the scene. Imagine this large company of finely dressed people arriving with exotic animals and caravans to the quaint house of a humble carpenter, his wife and his young son. The wise men don't respond with questioning or doubts or wonder if the star took them to the wrong neighborhood, the wrong house, the wrong 2-year-old. They don't wonder, "Did we take a wrong turn?" or argue with each other, "You should have asked the star for directions!" Instead, the Bible says they were overwhelmed with joy. They kneel down and worship a two-year old child offering him gifts far more expensive than anything this couple owns.
To me, this is one of the most under-appreciated stories in the Bible. It speaks about having the wisdom to see the signs of the time and thus to follow God's leading in a step of faith. Now, I don't suppose that many of us have seen a bright star in the night sky and followed it for days and months on end, but I think I can safely assume that we have all been encountered with an opportunity to serve God, to serve each other, to leave behind the comforts of home and what is familiar to follow an indistinct path. There are signs all around us everyday if we have eyes to see.
So I would suggest that we all add Three King's Day to our holiday calendars. OK, maybe there weren't exactly three wise men, maybe we'll all be back at work and school well before Jan. 6 and maybe the tree will be lying barren on the curb waiting to be thrown away. However, perhaps El Dia de los Tres Reyes could serve as an important reminder of the faithfulness of these wise men from the east.
Perhaps after the glitter of Christmas has faded and the revelry of the New Year has abated, in the short cold days of January, we need to be reminded that the light of Christ still shines if we will only open our eyes and step out in faith.