The story of the Magi, the three wise men, or the three kings as they are sometimes known, is one of the most colourful stories in the gospels. The nativity narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are set in a little known and rather backward place in ancient Palestine. The backdrop is one of oppression and poverty. The characters we encounter such as the shepherds are powerless and poor. Yet, the story ends with the 3 strangers from the east suddenly appearing on the scene following the guidance of a star and carrying elaborate and expensive gifts.
There isn’t much information given to us about the Magi but over the centuries a whole background story has developed based on tradition and legend. Each of the three Kings are given names Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar. We are also told in the tradition that has developed that the three men were kings from different countries, Arabia, Persia and India. If we take this scenario into account, it is very possible that these three men did not know each other. They set out on their individual journeys after they had recognised an unusual and significant star in the sky, but it was only well on in their journey that they met up, realised they were on the same quest and began to walk the road together.
Because of their different routes, and mix of background and culture, the Magi are seen as a symbol of the diversity that is to be found among Christians from different races, cultures, and traditions. They start their journey in different places, yet they are driven by the same hunger to encounter Jesus the Messiah and to do him homage. In this we can see a reflection of the goal of Christian Unity. The dream of different peoples, cultures, denominations, coming together to share their common hunger for Jesus, their desire to share him with the whole world, to bring him to all people and to establish a just and fair society in his name.
As we celebrate this Christian Unity Week, we ask what does God want of us in our diversity, our differences and in our shared faith? I believe he wants us to do what the Magi did. He wants us to walk together on the journey, to set aside our differences, and to find Jesus together.
The image of walking together implies so many things – but crucially it implies that we are moving in our relationship with God – that we are not static, not standing still – that it is a journey we are on and like any journey we haven’t yet reached its final destination. Our relationship with God is a journey of discovery, it implies a willingness to remain open to his prompting in our lives, to realise in humility that we are dependent on his support, direction, and guidance and to have trust and faith in him to help us reach our goal.
This image of walking appears many times in the bible. Psalm 86 says “Teach me your way, O Lord that I may walk in your truth”. In the Gospel of Luke Chapter 24 – Jesus meets and walks alongside two of his disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus and in their conversation, he helps them to understand what happened on Calvary and that his resurrection was real. This image of walking together with God at our side helps us to explore the nature of our relationship with him. Walking with a purpose for prayer and reflection, particularly on pilgrimages like the Camino, has long held a position of importance in the Christian tradition.
Today in our very secular and image conscious culture walking is a pursuit that is held in very high esteem and is recommended to all of us as a way to be healthy, to avoid putting on weight, to combat heart disease and type 2 diabetes and to avoid depression. Every morning, lunchtime and evening we see that our footpaths and roads are filled with walkers of various ages and various speeds all out to improve their health, fitness or general wellbeing.
Some relationship counsellors even talk about the benefits a couple can get in walking together and about how it can heal troubled marital relationships. Such counsellors say that away from all the distractions in the home, a couple walking together truly share their hearts. There seems to be a little bit less pressure, a little less of the formality, and that helps people in a relationship to really open up.
So how can we apply this to what we are about during this Christian Unity week? Like the Magi we as Christians of all denominations walk on the road towards Jesus, our saviour, together. Christian unity week is about acknowledging the presence of the other, it is about walking a mile along the road together and knowing that the road we walk in this secular world is increasing cold and lonely for people of faith no matter what denomination they belong to.
We need the support, encouragement and above all prayers of each other to make the message of Christ known in a difficult environment and to meet head on the challenge of godlessness in public life. Together we need to place justice, kindness and humility back on the agenda as a way of life and as a template for interaction between all God’s people.
T.S. Eliot declares in his poem ‘Choruses from the Rock’:
“And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in humble repentance…..What life have you if you have not life together?”
After encountering Jesus and worshipping him together, the Magi, the wise men, return to their own countries by a different way. This common experience of prayer should inspire us to return to our lives and our own Churches in a different way. We must make a commitment to serve the poor, the weak, the marginalized, to comfort the afflicted, to welcome the migrant, to relieve those who are suffering, and to build a just and honest society together.
So, this Christian Unity Week, and every Christian Unity week, is about seeking to bring us closer as Christians so that we can make a real and significant difference in the world. It helps us to stay attuned to that simple, yet daunting, question, that we all must answer in the quiet moments of our own prayer and in the public profession of our faith, – What does the Lord require of us as individuals and together as a community of Christians, if we are truly to be a people of faith, a people of the Word and a people of action?