Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.”… And when they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother and fell down and worshiped him. (Matt. 2:1-2)
Remember how, a few months ago, I was enthralled by the whole idea that missions and worship are connected? Here, worship shows up in an entirely different context, and I believe it’s the first time I’ve realized this aspect.
The wise men’s entire purpose in traveling hundreds of miles, following an elusive astronomical event, was to worship someone. A someone they probably didn’t even know was a child, hardly two years old.
When was the last time you felt a sense of awe and reverence toward a toddler?
These sages, the philosopher-scientists of their day—maybe like Aristotle—were supernaturally led, they knew, but their destination was the abode of a small child whose future they couldn’t begin to fathom. In the prophecies they had read about a priest-king, a prophet, and came prepared for such a one: They found a poor family and a child, barely ready to speak, who was to be the chosen one someday. Who already was the chosen one, somehow.
They gave him gold, the gift fit for a king. They gave him frankincense, the especial spice of the priesthood. And they gave him myrrh, another spice, this one used only for the dead. They prepared him for his funeral and burial before he could understand what it was to live and die.
Their first response was not thankfulness that he would save mankind, though no doubt that was an element in their worship. Nor did they state their intention of asking the priest-king for their own welfare or the welfare of their friends and neighbors. They came to worship.
What does it mean to worship a child?
I’m not a professional theologian. I can only imagine that it is to appreciate what he once was, what he gave up to become that child. The Scriptures say he “took on the form of a man.” He who was all-powerful wrapped himself in the tender skin of a human. He who was all-knowing shut his eyes to 99 percent of that knowledge in order to become like a man. He who was present everywhere contented himself to be localized in the body of a solitary human being, with arms and legs and a nose that sometimes got stuffed up.
Perhaps worshiping a child is to appreciate what he would become, what he was preparing to do three decades thence. He would be wildly popular, yet controversial, for three short years—less time than it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree—then he would volunteer to be beaten with glass-tipped whips, crowned with a vine of thorns several inches long and strung up by the hands, gouged by heavy iron nails, until his last breath left him. More than that—he would see his closest friends abandon him, all but one. He’d face his own father and see him turn his back. A heavenly father never abandons you, they say, yet he did abandon Jesus, or so it seemed.
But maybe worshiping a child is simply to appreciate what he is—a bundle of paradoxes that can be united only in that one single human being, a mix of impossibilities yielding a strange certainty. Seeing the mere babe as the culmination of hundreds of years of prophecies must have been trying for the sages who knocked at Mary and Joseph’s door. But they accepted his identity and worshiped at his feet.
I wonder what the baby Jesus thought of it.