And there it was – the star they had seen in the east! It led them until it came and stopped above the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed beyond measure. Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2: 9-11
Today is Epiphany – which means that the Magi of my liturgical action figures have finally reached the Child. Sam laughs at how I play with my Nativity set throughout the Christmas season. Early in Advent, I place the pregnant Mary, the watchful Joseph, and the tired donkey at the center of the scene – white and gray and brown on my white mantle, the Swedish star gently shining overhead. Behind the feather trees, also white and gray and brown, the angels are peeking out, watching over the repository of God’s grace and the hard-working carpenter who obediently cares for her, in spite of the tarnish on his own reputation. The shepherds, completely unaware of what is about to rock their world, are off on a different corner of the mantle, the trees creating a barrier between God and man – but a few angels, the ones who look the most joyful and giggly, are peeking out at them too. THEY know what’s coming and can’t wait to sing the good news to this motley crew. But not yet. The fullness of time has not come.
On Christmas Eve, the Child and mother replace the pregnant Mary. Instead of standing wearily, she kneels cradling the Baby, one hand reaching out as if to caress His perfect cheek – a gesture of all new mothers. The angels – all except a few kneeling by the trio – are off singing to the shepherds “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace…” In the morning (and I know this is not chronologically according to the story, but I like my tableau to have a few minutes in place!) the shepherds draw near, sheep and all, and worship the Infant. The angels pull back a little, except for the one that, in the big girl’s voice says, “Look, Baby Jesus, I brought you a puppy!” A few days after Christmas, the shepherds return, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told”.
So back to my Magi, wandering as far in the East as my mantle allows, guided by the soft glow of the wooden Swedish star, and the candlelight of one lone angel that walks backward before them, guiding, lighting the darkness, shielding the flame so a sudden desert storm won’t pffffft it out. Today they finally get to arrive. There is no dallying at Herod’s palace (for several years my children, with their Playmobile nativity, would set up Herod’s palace nearby – using the knight’s castle. There was a very cranky looking King Herod, accompanied by ominous guards, pointing the way. At least the children did not stage a Slaughter of the Innocents before I managed to put it all away!) My Wise Men push on knowing (by the trees moving out of the way) they are close. Today the little angel stops in front of Joseph, holding her candle over the Baby, and the Magi come and adore. The oldest and wisest (at least I assume he is – his long gray hair and beard attest to it) kneels the nearest with his gift for the King, the frankincense. He is followed by the Magi with the gold, his head bowed, while the third bears the myrrh looking upward as if he can see a cross. The camel just sinks placidly to the ground.
Tomorrow or the next day, I will pack it all away and relish the spare emptiness of a clean mantel. But what does it mean to me now? Why do I play with this Nativity throughout the whole Holy season? It’s not a toy – it is a lovely, and relatively pricey, set – enough so that I don’t allow anyone else in my household to move the figurines (at least not yet). I think that it is possibly the only way in this crazy busy upended time of year, the time when I promise myself “it will be different this year” but it never really is, that I pause. I breathe. I think about the ancient story of hope and love and grace and waiting, and for a few moments I can put myself into the scene – the ungainly uncomfortable mother, the anxious carpenter, the giggling angel, the sage travelers, the mystified frightened shepherds – and know that I am part of the story. Which is in itself an Epiphany.