There is a very interesting website called ‘Television Tropes and Idioms’ (tvtropes.org) that lists, quite exhaustively, the plot devices and conventions that script writers use to structure their storytelling. The website points out that these are not simply clichés: a cliché is something stereotyped, trite, dull and uninteresting, whereas these tropes are the vast array of plausible narrative patterns and character-situations by which writers of fiction, skilled and unskilled alike, help their audience to find meaning within a story.
Over the years the database has expanded beyond television to include a number of other genres, but as yet not the scriptures. This seems a shame, because the biblical authors certainly employ and appeal to the same familiar plots that we find in Star Trek, Coronation Street and The Killing. A fun project would be to go to the website and see how many of the tropes listed – and there are hundreds of them – you can find somewhere in the Bible. In particular, there are a whole set related to journeys. This is not surprising, because from the very beginnings of story-telling it seems that the tale of the quest-journey has been a favourite; and in today’s Gospel we encounter one such, the quest of the Magi for the new-born King.
I want to take us today to the very end of this journey – and beyond it: we are told that ‘they returned to their own country by a different way’. Now this word ‘way’, in Old Testament and New alike, means more than just the literal road they happen to take. ‘Way’ also means a way of life, a pattern of behaviour, and for all that it is no doubt literally the case that the Magi were careful to skirt around Jerusalem to give Herod the slip, there is something much deeper going on also. Let us recall that these men, great in the (so-called) wisdom of Persian astrology, wealthy and no doubt much respected, had knelt in homage and worship before the child of Bethlehem. They had learnt, at the culmination of their journey, that their old ways had to change.
We see from our first reading and our psalm today that the Jewish people had long foreseen the time when all the nations would flock to Israel to pay her homage; as is so often the case in St Matthew’s Gospel in particular, we are reminded that the scriptures of Israel are fulfilled, and yet in an utterly surprising way. Who could have foreseen that this homage would be received by an obscure child of seeming questionable parentage in a nowhere town?
More to the point, the prophets of Israel had not foreseen that, having come from the lands of the Gentiles bringing their gifts, the wise, the wealthy and the powerful would go home again! And yet the Magi cannot go home again, can’t return to their old ways, their old positions of power and influence, their wealth and status and luxury. Neither can they return to seeking the secrets of the cosmos in the stars, because now they have seen the one true mystery of creation, a mystery revealed, as St Paul tells us, through the Spirit. Yes, a star had led them to this child, because God in his infinite mercy stoops to accommodate our ways, even sometimes our foolish and misguided ways; but the Magi can be astrologers no longer…
So what did happen to these Magi, now that, having at least seen and worshipped the Christ, they have truly become wise men? We do not know; but there are many traditions about them, and for centuries Christians have piously believed that they became Christians and were ultimately martyred for their faith. What, after all, could be more natural than that these men, who went home ‘by another way’, found that when they got there they no longer fitted in? Their eyes had been opened to the mean reality behind the pomp and wealth of Persian court and Babylonian temple. This was no longer their home, because they had received from Christ infinitely more than they had given him: they had received the faith that brings with it the promise of a heavenly homeland.