'They departed to their own country by another way.’ (Mt 2:12) These are the last words of the Gospel of today’s Mass. In the context of St Matthew’s story of the wise men, they make perfect sense. The wise are warned to return home by another way to avoid falling into the hands of King Herod.
At the same time these words seem to allude to a strange story found in the Old Testament, in the First Book of Kings (1Ki 13:1-32). The story is set in the aftermath of the rebellion of the Northern Kingdom of Israel against the Kingdom of Judah and the rule of the descendants of King David in Jerusalem. The first King of the Northern Kingdom, Jeroboam, anxious to stop his people from going to worship in Jerusalem, has set up places for idolatrous worship within his own territory:
‘The king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt."
And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. And this thing became a sin, for the people went to the one at Bethel and to the other as far as Dan. (1 Ki. 12:28-30)
A prophet then comes out of Judah to the altar at Bethel and in the presence of King Jeroboam he foretells the birth of a son to the house of David who will restore true worship. The prophet from Judah is instructed by God not to eat bread or drink water in the place to which he has been sent, and not to return home by the way he came.
The prophet fails to follow God’s instructions, and comes to a bad end, involving a lion. To drive the point home, the lion kills the man but then does not eat him, showing that he (unlike the prophet) is doing only as much as God instructs him to do and no more.
Though this story from the Old Testament is very different from the story of the wise men, there are obvious points of connection: the promise of the birth of a son to the house of David; and a king who sets himself up as an enemy to the true worship of God, forcing his subjects to choose between loyalty to himself and fidelity to the true God.
The main connection between the two stories is that in both the witnesses to God’s truth come into a land where that truth is not welcome and they are in danger. The prophet and the wise men are bearers of God’s truth, but the principle witness to the truth is of course Jesus Himself, born subject to worldly powers that would smother the truth at its birth.
In the story of the prophet from Judah, the point of the command not to eat, not to drink and return by a different way seems to be, simply, to test his obedience. The instructions make no sense, they only make the prophet’s mission more difficult. But because he does not do exactly as God tells him, he dies.
Transposed into the story of the wise men, who unlike the prophet do obey God, the point becomes that total obedience to God brings them through the danger back safely home.
This journey of the wise men back home is as important a part of the story as their journey to Bethlehem. Finding the child Jesus is not the end of the story. Christmas is not a happy ending.
We do not see in the crib the world’s problems solved. Christmas is God with us in this world with all its dangers.
The way to Bethlehem is lit be a star. The way to Jesus is clear. He is the light shining in our darkness. But the way of Jesus, His way in the world, the way that we must go after finding Him, seems impossible and impassable and dark. The story of the wise men is God’s promise to us: that God will provide a way for His Word in the world and a way for us to follow this Word. It will be a way that we have never walked before, that we have never known, that He will make for us.