Kings & Wise Men

Sunday 8th January 2006
Year B, The Epiphany
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Matthew 2:1-12

We three kings of orient are
One in a taxi; one in a car;
One on a scooter, blowing his hooter,
Smoking a fat cigar.

It's all wrong! Except for the fat cigar, it just doesn't work. Kings don't use taxis or cars; and they certainly don't ride around on scooters; but there's something about the fat cigar that seems right. If they had been invented at the time I am sure that King Herod would have smoked fat cigars.

Still, I like the rhyme because I don't much care for kings. They might have been necessary in olden times but history doesn't have much good to say for them. It's too hard to possess absolute power and stay good. For me, then, no amount of Renaissance painting, German Romanticism nor Victorian sentimentality can persuade me that a posse of bloated tyrants turned up to see Jesus while Mary was hanging out the washing or doing Joseph's accounts.

But, of course, there is another view of today's Gospel; that these were not Kings in the Southern European tradition but wise men in the Northern European tradition. Now the idea of wise men coming to worship Jesus, bearing symbolically significant gifts, of gold, frankincense and myrrh, does appeal to me. Given a choice of kings and wise men I would take the wise men every time. But as a society we are in danger of too often choosing the kings, not the monarchs of old but the football kings and the television queens and the rap artist princes and the topless princesses. Once there were celebrities who were known for what they did; now we have B list celebrities who are only known for being celebrities; so that someone appears on television and is introduced as someone who appears on television; and suddenly people come from nowhere onto a stupidly named 'reality television' show and a celebrity, as opposed to a star, is born. I can understand why people were interested in kings who could seize your land or cut your head off at whim but transferring that intensity of awe and interest to celebrities who are built up only to be knocked down is surely an abdication of good sense.

And there is no point saying we don't do this. A few years ago the flagship radio 4 programme Any Questions came from Cuckfield and after a discussion of a particularly nasty tabloid story, the audience was asked to show how many would boycott the Sunday papers. There was an almost unanimous "Yes" vote; but on the Sunday morning the shelves were emptied by media locusts. If we stopped being interested in these people they would soon stop appearing.

The obsession with these paper kings distracts us in two important ways: first, it blunts our concern for the victims of arbitrary power; and, secondly, it distances us from wisdom.

On the first point, the continuation of today's Gospel reminds us of the terrible power of the strong over the weak - of Herod over babies - but last year how many weak babies died as the victims of powerful people, died of starvation, disease, disaster or war? It is now customary for people to talk about compassion fatigue but what I think we are really suffering from is passion fatigue.

Just as trivia often diverts us from what is really important, so it also distances us from wisdom; we just don't get time to put things into perspective, to see the difference in importance between injustice and personal inconvenience; between true joy and sorrow and the joy and sorrow for a passing celebrity. There is, too, the danger of confusing cleverness with wisdom. When we need to be talked out of something that we know will be difficult, there is always somebody clever on hand to provide us with the reassurance we need. There are clever people on hand to talk about third world corruption, charity overhead costs, national security, realpolitik, the venality of foreigners and the non existence of God. There are always clever, world weary people who encourage us to think that we can do nothing.

What, then, by contrast, is the wisdom of these wise men? For me, it is very simple. They were wise enough to believe that sitting still was not enough. When they were told by the clever men that tramping about the Middle East in search of a child would come to no good, they refused to listen. They chose to put their trust in a tiny, humble baby from whom they expected nothing; they came to worship a baby.

Forget the kings, even forget the gifts; just remember the wisdom of worshipping the child. Not, as Giles Fraser reminds us, not the sentimental child of pampered Western culture. This was a child of 1st Century Palestine where so many children died that every fertile woman had to bear five children just to keep the population stable. Children were scraps of life with less than a 50% chance of having their own children. They were nothing. So when the grown up Jesus talked about children he was talking about human scum.

Let us imagine, then, what it might be like to be disciples of the newborn child. We would feel deep anxiety at any sign of illness and we would feel great joy at the progress of the child. We would cry and we would laugh; we would weep and we would dance. We would experience a deep intensity. "Yes", I can hear you thinking, "We all know how this feels; we have experienced it in our children and grandchildren or in deep relationships with family and friends". Which leads me to ask: after experiencing the deep sorrow and joy, the crying and the dancing, over the fate of our family and friends, is a little mild penitence and hymn singing good enough for the infant Jesus whose disciples we say we are?

You can be sure that no king or clever person would be the disciple of a helpless child; but to be wise is to understand the relationship of things, to rank, to be proportionate, to see the big picture, past temporal fashion. To be wise is to see God in the infant Jesus; to see Him as the only object of our adoration; to see adoration as the proper purpose of God's creatures. To be wise is to be thankful, it is to be humble, and it is also to be earth-ful. The wisdom of the tear and the dance is not ethereal nor abstract, it is the wisdom of the appropriate expression of feeling. To be wise is to do your own crying and your own dancing instead of living through the crying and dancing of others, such as celebrities.

Just as we have rather glorified kings in our art, so we have rarified wise people. Instead of being in touch with the dirge and the dance, our wise people now are forever grave, forever bespectacled in their studies, with heavy books of impenetrable syntax. In the modern era, just as the king has become the celebrity, so the wise man has become the clever man.

In a very real sense, to be wise means to be in touch with ourselves rather than living vicariously through the media; and being in touch with ourselves as creatures of God means being in touch with the mysterious, being alive to wonder; it means being a Disciple of faith and hope and love, a disciple of sorrow and joy, a disciple of God made child.