I always enjoy reading through a gospel account of the nativity in the run up to Christmas. I never fail to be struck by a different aspect of the story each year. This year, it was the dichotomy between the shepherds and the wise men, which particularly struck me. How astounding that Jesus Christ, the promised Saviour, came to earth so humbly and was greeted by such disparate groups of people, such as shepherds and the Magi!
Some might deem it unfortunate that the shepherds and the Magi do not appear in the same gospel account. Luke’s Gospel (2:8-18) portrays the shepherds getting on with their business of looking after their sheep, addressed by an angel concerning Jesus’ birth, then a whole company of angels, and then going to see this saviour for themselves, before telling others about what they have seen. Matthew’s Gospel (2:1-12), on the other hand, portrays the wise men being guided by a star, interacting with Herod, worshipping Jesus, presenting gifts, and then directed away by God from a return to Herod.
We need not, however, be dismayed by the apparent discrepancies between the gospel accounts. They can be accounted for by considering the evangelists’ different aims in their biographical presentation of Jesus Christ. It has been remarked that Luke has more of a social agenda, showing that Jesus came for the poor and oppressed, which squares with the featuring of the shepherds, who represented men very much from the common rung; while Matthew is more intent on showing Jesus as the Messiah in accordance with Jewish Scripture and tradition, this squares with the fact that these knowledgeable Magi come and furnish Micah 5:2-4 (Matthew 2:6) as a Messianic prophecy. The shepherds and the Magi could not be more different in terms of social position and learning, yet both play their role in the nativity story, and crucially, both come to worship Jesus.
This got me thinking about the simplicity and the complexity of the gospel. I feel that the shepherds could be seen to represent the former, and the Magi the latter. In reality, the gospel, the good news about Jesus is simple – so simple that anyone can grasp it. In broad brush strokes, God’s son came in human form, at an appointed time, lived a human life, told those around him that he was God’s son, died a criminal’s death because such a declaration was superbly unpopular, yet rose from the dead, offering eternal life to anyone who believes in this and believes that they need him as a Saviour in their life. So far, so simple… or not so simple? Each of these features of Jesus’ life (and they are in no way exhaustive and, I’m sure, many would have quibbles with my phrasing), when we slow down and think about them, are remarkably complex. The gospel, on one hand, is good news which anyone can grasp; but on the other, good news filled with such depth and mystery, that we need Magi-like people to try to penetrate to the heart of these profundities.
Thankfully, many have undertaken such a task, and many continue to do so, and it continues to have worth. There is a warning for any of us, however, who seek to think like the Magi: not to forget the baby in the cradle, as Martin Luther once warned. I was struck by the words of one of the verses of Angels from the Realms of Glory this Christmas, which I think illustrate this idea:
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great Desire of nations;
Ye have seen His natal star.
In other words, anyone trying to think in complex terms about the gospel, would do well to remember that this great natal star has appeared. Naturally, there are fascinating things to ponder, but if thinking happens without seeking Jesus first and being about him, then it is unlikely to stand the test of time.
Another interesting aspect concerning the shepherds and the magi is that they are both groups who are on the outside. The shepherds, as mentioned, were among the poor and ostracised. They might have reared the sheep who were offered as sacrifices in the temple, but they weren’t clean enough to enter the temple. The Magi were from the east, far from, God’s chosen people, Israel. Yet, God brings both groups to come and see this baby who will become the saviour of the world and to take the good news of his arrival to those around them.
I really hope and pray that 2017 will be a year of unity for God’s Church, that together we would behold Christ in all his simplicity and all his complexity. Never has the need for unity been greater. The figures of the shepherds and the Magi remind us, among other things, that we should not view anyone as being on the outside, whether a fellow believer in our own church with whom we have a few differences, or someone who does not currently spend time in the Church – no one is beyond the love of God. We may even learn something from someone on the “outside”, which helps to bring us closer to the figure who once lay in a humble cradle.
 Credit to my mother here who directed me to an advent devotional from Michael Mitton, A Handful of Light… (2008) which helped form a few of these thoughts.