“…they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him…” and “they departed into their own country another way” (King James Bible, Matthew 2:10,11,12)
Unlike modern visitors to the Holy Land, the Wise Men went not as sightseers nor even as pilgrims, but in order to see a Person. And with them they took their own personal gifts with which to pay him homage. It was this intensely personal motive for their journey which caused them to rejoice with exceeding great joy when the star reappeared and pointed them to Bethlehem. For nothing could take the place of the Holy King whom they sought.
In spite of seeing the ancient and famous city of Jerusalem with its novel sights, in spite of travelling through the wild and hilly country of Judaea, so different from the flat and fertile plains of Mesopotamia, in spite of all these things – so interesting to their keen, enquiring minds – their journey would be altogether wasted if at its end they did not find Jesus himself.
So the joy of the shepherds, after they had seen the Saviour of the world in the manger at Bethlehem, was centred on the Person of the Divine Jesus. And their joy, like that of the Wise Men, was the true spirit of worship. As the Wise Men fell down and worshipped the Saviour King, the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God.
There was nothing formal or conventional about the attitude of either. The simple, unsophisticated shepherds went back to their work up the hillside, singing not only with their mouths but in their hearts. In seeming contrast we have the Wise Men’s solemn and dignified presentation of their gifts in the manner prescribed by court ceremonial: but the meaning and sincerity of their act of worship may be measured, not only by their exceeding great joy at the reappearance of the star, but also by the length of their journey and the bitter winds and cold of the nights as they crossed the deserts.
And we should have the same, personal joy in a personal Saviour expressed in worship that comes welling up from the heart. While together we adore him as our Lord, yet for each individual he should be my Lord. And it is this personal love and joy which lights up and vitalises Christian worship.
We must get far beyond the common idea that worship is the same thing as attendance at church services. Worship is an active expression of an inner devotion. It is not just looking and listening, or singing hymns to familiar tunes and watching dignified ceremonial. Such things are but outward forms: to become acts of worship they have to be warmed and enlivened by the offering of the heart, by a personal love and joy in our Saviour.
Without that offering, worship is meaningless and empty. And it is an injunction in Holy Scripture that none shall appear before the Lord empty (Exodus 23:15; Deuteronomy 16:16). If we come empty-hearted we shall also go empty-hearted, for, as Our Lord has told us, the measure we give will be the measure we get (Matthew 7:2).
The chief cause why some are dissatisfied with the worship of the Church is their own failure to contribute to it. For worship is something we offer, and God receives; and it is cold and lifeless for both him and us until it is made radiant by the love and joy of giving one’s whole self to him.
And this personal love and joy in Jesus Christ must illuminate not only the worship of Christians, but also their lives. After the Wise Men had adored the Infant King they departed to their own country “another way”. So everyone today who has been drawn to Our Lord moves, as it were, on another road and on a different level. Life then will never be the same again. It takes on a different character altogether from the old life that preceded it.
And not only is this change an undoubted fact to the person concerned, it is also noticed by others. Just as in the Acts of the Apostles the chief priests recognised that Peter and John had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13) so today the converted Christian’s association with Jesus is revealed by his or her manner of life. By their fruits are they known, the fruits of the Spirit of Christ within them (see Matthew 7:16-18).
There will be love, an attitude of goodwill to all and a spirit of fellowship with those who want to love and serve Our Lord.
There will be joy, a new-found happiness which is independent of the happiness that the world professes to provide: for let us not forget that the practice of our holy Faith cannot fail to make people happy.
There will be inward peace, resting on the sure conviction of God’s love and care, and of the reality of his forgiveness when in penitence this is asked for and received.
There will be a new patience in the face of vexations and annoyances: where before they provoked ill-temper, now they are met with calmness and self-control.
And there will be gentleness and courtesy, in the face of abuse or arrogance or ill manners, as Our Lord’s own teaching and example are followed.
The things about Our Lord which before were admired at a distance are now taken to heart and practised. For that “other way” of life, which the truly converted worshipper finds himself or herself pursuing, is none other than Christ’s way, and it is he who is making them like himself.
Let the worship of each of us, then, be like that of the Wise Men and shepherds who rejoiced with exceeding great joy and fell down and worshipped him, and then returned to their daily tasks another way, glorifying and praising God.