I love jigsaw puzzles! I can lose all track of time while laser- focused on the search for the next piece. Last New Year’s Eve, I planned to turn in early. After getting into my pajamas, I went back to the puzzle to see if I could find just a few more pieces. True confessions – the next thing I knew, it was after 1:30 a.m., but I had made puzzle progress!
Finding the next matching piece is the delight that keeps jig saw puzzle aficionados in pursuit of puzzle progress. That popped into my head as I was read again the story of the pilgrimage of the Magi who brought gifts to the child Jesus (Mt 2:1-12). These Gentile astronomers from the East witnessed an unusual bright new star that signaled to them the birth of a Judean king. They knew WHEN he was born, but not exactly WHERE to find him. They had ONE piece of the puzzle and went searching for the matching piece!
After traveling a very long distance, the Magi reached Jerusalem. “WHERE is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they inquired. Frightened by their question, King Herod called in the Jewish chief priests and scribes. They quoted the prophetic scriptures to the king (Mi 5:2) which revealed WHERE (Bethlehem) but not WHEN the Messiah would come. The Jewish scripture scholars had only ONE piece of the puzzle.
What jumped out at me is that no one in this story had full revelation of God’s plan. The Jews had one piece of the puzzle and—shockingly—those non-Jewish Magi had another piece, the matching piece. Matthew’s gospel begins with puzzle hints of the role of Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation (see Jesus’ lineage in chapter 1). Like bookends, that gospel closes with Jesus’ great commission to go and make disciples of all nations.
God seems to give us pieces of the puzzle with hopes that we will, like the Magi, care enough to go to great lengths in pursuit of greater wisdom and truth. Though I tend not to go even short lengths toward people with whom I differ, I realize that’s a mistake. Matthew’s gospel tells me that God has happily sprinkled the puzzle pieces among people least expected. Who are those I would least expect to be bearers of a little piece of insight? Am I willing to listen non-judgmentally, with the ear of the heart for a missing puzzle piece from them? Do I have the courage to speak up and share an insight when I fear being judged by them?
A grievous, haunting piece of this story is how King Herod reacted. The matching puzzle pieces that revealed to Herod the birth of the long prophesied Jewish Messiah did not elicit the same joy, generosity, and homage of the Magi. Instead, Herod interpreted this as a threat to his power and control. When the Magi did not return to report the exact location of this child, Herod ordered the slaughter of all male babies in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.
Within myself, I find the Magi and King Herod. Sometimes I’m hospitable to God’s surprises, pursuing and bowing before God’s will. “THY kingdom come; THY will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Other times, I don’t want my boat to be rocked, to let go of things as they are or entertain another point of view. Sometimes I trust and expect God’s abundance even when scarcity threatens. Other times I stare at the scarcity with such fear that it blinds me to God’s abundance. What a puzzle!
I can’t help but puzzle over what became of the Magi when they returned home. “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12). Clearly, they were not the kind to cozy up to powerful figures like King Herod. That bright star of divine light led them to the infant king who they found not in a luxurious palace but in very humble circumstances. I like to imagine that discovery was life altering for them as they came face-to-face with Emmanuel, God with us. Perhaps their return home by another road was also descriptive of their new pursuit, as spiritual pilgrims, of more matching puzzle pieces.
By Sister Sara Aiden Burress, OSB