One of the most heartening stories in all scripture is that of the Magi and King Herod from Matthew 2:1-12, the appointed text for the Epiphany of Our Lord on January 6. On this day and the Sundays following, through Transfiguration, we celebrate the in-breaking of God’s light into the world in the person of Jesus Christ as a message of radical inclusivity for all people everywhere.
As Matthew tells it, a group of Magi, or Persian astrologer-priests, have divined the news of Jesus’ birth. They identify an astronomical phenomenon that tells them of the newborn king, and resolve to follow the path of the star in order to worship him with lavish gifts. After what must have been a trek of many months or even up to two years, they arrive in Jerusalem and, assuming everyone has heard about it (they haven’t), ask where “the child born king of the Jews” can be found.
This terrifies Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of Judea whose gratuitous title “King of the Jews” had been conferred by the Roman Senate to butter him up so he would do their bidding. In truth he is no king at all. When the Magi come inquiring about someone newly born with his same title, Herod takes it as a direct threat. Determined not to be revealed as an imposter, he tries to trick the Magi into revealing the child’s precise location so he can “pay him homage,” although his clear intent is murderous. But they turn the tables on him as they are warned in a dream to return to their country by another road, leaving Herod hanging. Infuriated, he orders all that children age 2 and younger in entire the area around Bethlehem be killed. But once again Herod is thwarted, for Jesus is not there; an angel has intervened to tell Joseph to flee to Egypt with Mary and the baby.
The humble Magi, who desired only to pay Jesus homage, are towering models of nonviolent resistance to power falsely claimed and brutally wielded. In our age we find an inspiring parallel in the Children’s Crusade of May, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. Early in 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose first president was Martin Luther King, Jr., had decided to focus on one of the county’s most segregated cities, Birmingham, Alabama. The goal was to desegregate downtown businesses, using methods of nonviolent protest including sit-ins, kneel-ins at local churches, and a march to the county building to mark the beginning of a voter registration drive. The SCLC leaders knew it would be rough going because of Birmingham’s fearsome Commissioner of Public Safety and police chief, a notorious white supremacist named Bull Connor. The first thing Connor did in response to the protests was to force through ban on all public displays of resistance. The protest leaders knew this was unconstitutional but geared up anyway for mass arrests. King was one of the first to be arrested, and a few days later wrote his monumental Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Soon the protests ran out of people who were willing to risk being arrested. Then, one of the leaders, James Bevel, came up with a bold idea: Train high school students to be part of the demonstrations. So on May 2, 1963, more than a thousand students gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church. They marched out 50 at a time with the goal of walking to City Hall to speak to officials about segregation.
None of those children made it: The first day they were arrested and jailed without further incident. But the second day, as more children began to march, Bull Connor unleashed his police dogs and fire hoses. National television networks broadcast the scenes of the dogs attacking demonstrators and water from the fire hoses knocking down the schoolchildren.This march became known as the “Children’s Crusade,” and what is rarely recognized is that it changed the course of the Civil Rights movement. Until then the Kennedy administration shied away from the movement a political liability. But national outrage over Bull Connor’s attacks on children finally got the White House involved. With federal intervention, a week later Birmingham agreed to desegregate downtown lunch counters and other public accommodations; to create a committee to eliminate discriminatory hiring practices; to arrange for the release of jailed protesters; and to establish regular means of communication between black and white leaders. And all because of the children, who went willingly and believed in what they were doing. “I didn’t hate white people,” one girl said later. “I didn’t even know any. I just knew the system was wrong.”
As models of resistance, these children were much like the Magi in Matthew 2. They knew the truth and acted accordingly. We’re not sure at what point the Magi figured out what Herod was really trying to do—kill Jesus, not worship him—but it may have had something to do with the star, since after all the Magi were astronomers. This bright star had led them all the way to Jerusalem and then must have stopped; when Herod ordered them to find out where Jesus was and they set out for Bethlehem, the star began to move again. Matthew reports, “There, ahead of them, was the star that they had seen at its rising.” The Magi followed it until it stopped again, and before them were the young child and his parents. Great joy fell upon them and they bowed low to worship the new king.
How blessed we are to have a Savior whose very powerlessness—as a baby, on the cross—reveals the truth about those who abuse their power. How amazing that we have a Savior whose own people demanded he die, but by whose death the world was rescued from sin and death? The Magi are models of resistance for us all of us. When we are confronted by injustice, let us step up. When we see power exercised wrongly, let us speak out. When we find ourselves manipulated by those who live only in fear, let us take another road. For that road leads us home—to the manger, to the cross, and beyond.
Pastor Nancy Raabe
The Epiphany of Our Lord, January 6, 2022; Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 17, 2022