The truly wise are always watching.
told by Deborah
During the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him our respects."
When King Herod heard about this, he was alarmed, as were all of the bigwigs and bureaucrats and hangers-on. He called for a meeting, together with the senior clergy and theologians, asking them where the Messiah was to be born.
They told him, "In Bethlehem; as the prophet wrote, ‘And you, Bethlehem of Judah, are not least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd My people Israel.'"
Then Herod secretly arranged to meet the magi to find out exactly when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I, too, may go and pay him my respects."
After this they set out, following the star, which led them forward until it stayed still over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overjoyed.
As soon as they entered the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt before him respectfully. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another route.
I was awoken by the tapping; its steady rhythm growing nearer. A light glowed beneath the threshold, followed by an insistent rapping on the door; “Mel! Mel! Wake up! This is no time for sleeping!”
I groaned and flung aside the blankets, dislodging my devoted companion and champion mouser, Martha — who repositioned herself on the bookshelf and glowered down at me. “A moment, a moment!” I called, struggling into my robe.
Opening the door I was temporarily blinded by the blazing flame of an oil lamp; I raised my hand to shield my eyes, demanding, “What is it?!”
An old man stood before me, holding the lamp above his head: a disheveled midnight Diogenes, seeking…. what, I do not know. It was Balthazar — Balthazar the Sleepless, as I’ve taken to calling him. The habit of a lifetime is too ingrained to end with old age or infirmity, and he persists in gazing into the heavens despite his fading eyesight. Starstruck, some of the younger magi call him. Less charitable others have used the word “lunatic.”
He shuffled into my room, his walking stick tapping sharply on the tile floor.
“It’s happened,” he announced, sinking — uninvited — into the deep pillows of my couch, “You thought it was a fool’s errand, but I tell you now: you were the fool to doubt me!”
I sat down on my bed, facing Balthazar. The light from the old man’s lamp formed a nimbus around his head, illuminating linen-white hair and accentuating the wrinkles that mapped his features like a lunar landscape. We are none of us as young as we used to be.
“So tell me,” I sighed, “What is this about?”
My ancient friend drew closer and smiled, “The star,” he said, “The star has returned.”
My patient smile remained frozen on my lips as I pondered this announcement and wondered, not for the first time, if that were the cause of his restlessness. Did he search the skies in hopes of recapturing the excitement and drama of our long-distant past?
Before I had formulated an answer, Martha, resentful at being ignored, leaped from her hiding place among the books and landed with a less-than-elegant thud on the couch next to Balthazar. His lamp crashed to the floor and, after a spark and a sizzle, went out.
For a moment all was quiet. And very, very dark.
Then a voice in the hallway called out, “Master Melchior! Master Melchior! Come at once! We’ve seen it: the Star of the King of Israel has returned!”
As I made my way out the door, I glanced back into my room — and was met by the same cool, unblinking stare by both of its occupants.
Thirty years ago I was spryer, but now my movements were spurred by curiosity. Had that nasty piece of work Herod finally been replaced? Remembering his artifice of welcome, his armed guards, clandestine meetings, and veiled insinuations made me shiver, even these many years later. A desperate character, frightened and vulnerable, never to be trusted. I well-remember Caspar’s dream of a crown that turned into a bear-trap, a deadly, vicious, snare that pursued us across the countryside; the omen that sent us away from Judea along a different route.
But now: what was the significance of the newly-risen star? Perhaps an heir born to the radiant Child we discovered in that humble home in Bethlehem. My heart warmed at the thought: the little boy Jesus would by now be grown into a man; a good man, I was certain. Surely his children would be the same.
“Hurry up with those camels!” I called to the drivers, “We have many days’ travel ahead of us; we must begin without delay.”
Although anxious to leave, I would not, could not, make the journey without my companions from the years before. Balthazar was beside me at every step, advising, criticizing, rearranging the bags as they were loaded on the animals’ backs. Caspar, too, toting ink pots, pens, and papyrus, weighed down with celestial maps, warning the young astrologers against any plans for sloth or negligence in his absence.
That such a thing would happen twice in a lifetime was almost beyond our hoping, but not, I admit, beyond our dreams. We rushed about like schoolchildren released from our studies, filled with excited anticipation; such an extraordinary opportunity for discovery could not be missed.
And soon we were ready to depart.
As leader of the School, I rode at the head of our train, with Balthazar beside me, in honor of his having been the first to see the Star arise. The journey was, blessedly, quite uneventful — following a route we knew, along the well-paved and securely patrolled Roman roads — with a single, significant exception.
It was the evening of the third day; the sky was growing dark, and we were all more than ready to stop for the night, but the wayside inn was not yet in sight. I was beginning to get anxious — as was my progressively less-cooperative camel, and the loudly mewing ball of fur enfolded in my tunic. At length, after much feline complaining, a curve in the road brought the comforting glow of the inn into sight.
I sighed, “There! At last!” The rest of our party began to chatter with relief.
“What?” Balthazar looked toward me, “What is ‘there’?”
“Why, the inn, of course; just ahead of us. Those lamps right over there.” I pointed.
My friend raised his head, but did not look in the direction I indicated; instead, he was listening …. listening for clues for orientation the way blind men do.
I must have gasped at the recognition, or perhaps he sensed my reaction — we have, as you know, known each other for a long, long time.
With a laugh, Balthazar said, “Mel, for someone who studies the sky for a living, you’re not very observant.”
In reply I mumbled some excuse; a flattery of his skills at compensation, a rationale for my neglectful ignorance. That night illuminated a sorry truth: it wasn’t my friend who was the blind one.
Several days later, on a warm summer afternoon, we passed through the gates of Jerusalem, ignored by the cadre of Roman soldiers who guarded the city’s entrance. Our party merited no sort of interest — except from a couple of dogs who paid too close attention to the pocket of my robe and yelped away with scratched noses, and a woman who approached us at once, as though she had been expecting us.
“If you’ve come to hear the Lord, follow me.”
“The Lord?” Balthazar asked, “Who is that?”
“Jesus is the Lord,” she replied, matter-of-factly, “Jesus of Nazareth. He’s a holy teacher and wonderworker who travels throughout the land. Some say he is the messiah,” she added, “sent from God.”
We were silent. Could we have been wrong? Had we misread the signs; were the stars out of alignment? Was this the Jesus we knew as newborn king of the Jews — not wealthy and well-situated, living in regal splendor, but wandering through the villages like a vagabond? Perhaps there was some mistake.
“We want to meet the Lord,” I told her.
“Come with me,” she turned and walked away. What could we do but follow?
She led us past workmen’s houses, small shops, a few tethered goats, several dogs, and an open-air arena. As we reached the courtyard of small two-story building, Balthazar leaped off his mount and raised his arms in delight, “It is here, in this place! The star is above us!"
Several people came out of the house, peering at the blind man dancing ecstatically in their garden. The woman smiled, “These are the Lord’s children,” by way of introduction and, for an instant, I had an odd sensation, uncertain if she was speaking of them or us.
“Welcome, traveller,” a gray-haired man reached out to help steady me; after so many days astride these humped beasts, the ground seems to sway like ocean waves. Before I could thank him, a small boy handed me a cup of sweet cider, and a young woman gave our camels cool water to drink. Martha was purring contentedly, nestled in a little girl’s lap.
It was an unexpected homecoming; we were in a place we knew so well, where we had never been.
I looked around me: so many people, of so many different ages, races, and tribes! “These cannot all be the Lord’s children.” I said to the woman.
She shook her head, “Indeed they are. Not by birth, but by adoption: born anew, into a family united by love and compassion.”
It was extraordinary, this new understanding; I felt as if my world had been turned upside down. A king who taught rather than commanded, who ruled with lovingkindness instead of force; a childless man with thousands of children; the holy Presence here among us, walking upon the earth.
That star appeared to us — for us. It was a divine assurance, and an invitation to bring forth in ourselves and in our world a new, holy way of being.
in the darkness,
to give birth
to the Christ.
May your journey be blessed,