"Why do we need wise men, anyway?"
Well, that's a loaded question. But it was being asked about the nativity scene and how we include "The Three Kings" in it when they probably arrived much later, they weren't kings and there may have been more than three of them.
We'd just watched a video at church about the story we tell at Christmas and how the traditional story is often a combination of stories with some colourful embellishments. The point of it wasn't to suggest the story was being told incorrectly, but to point out how those things bring meaning to the truth that is at the heart of the story.
But back to the question. The birth had already been revealed to the shepherds who, Luke tells, came to the manger and found Jesus just as the angel had described. And, since Jesus came to the poor and the outcast, it certainly makes sense that he would be shown to them.
Yes, the birth was proclaimed to the nearby shepherds in detail and they were told what they were looking for and where to find it. They didn't really have to look for him, they found exactly what the angel told them they would and the angel told them who it was they were finding.
The magi were not close by: they were "wise men from the east." That's not a description you give of people from just the other end of town. And the sign they followed was a star, a celestial marker, that could have been seen from anywhere. And yet they were the only ones who truly "saw" what it meant. They followed a sign which they interpreted in order to find the fulfilment of a prophecy. They weren't really sure who or what they were looking for, though they knew it when they found it. They even had to stop and ask directions from Herod.
This is a whole different thing from the shepherds.
The magi were not from the neighbourhood, or Judea for that matter, and probably weren't even jews. They were probably - gasp - foreigners. So God's arrival in Jesus isn't just for one small group, culture or tradition, but for anyone from anywhere.
The magi were seekers. They came looking for something, following a sign, and found it in the baby of Bethlehem. Something that their faith, not an angel, revealed to them was what they were seeking. Something of such immense value that they tried to honour him with the most expensive gifts they could find. That, by the way, doesn't mean that they were particularly rich, necessarily. Matthew's story doesn't say how much of any of these things they brought, nor how many of them brought the three treasured gifts.
Right there is perhaps the most important difference: the shepherds are in Luke's story, the magi in Matthew's. Both stories tell of Jesus's birth in different ways, most significantly how the birth is proclaimed to the shepherds and revealed to the magi.
The truth at the hearts of their stories is Emmanuel: that God came to be with us in Jesus. That's perhaps why we like to put them together. Shepherd or magi, we come to that same truth in different ways, from different places, led by different desires.
At our World's Greatest Christmas Pageant just before Christmas, where everyone was in the pageant and you could be whoever you wanted to be, there seemed to be just about an equal number of shepherds and magi. I'd like to think that people thought about who they would be and how they might come to the manger before they picked their costume.
Maybe they had an epiphany.