Archive for January, 2016

“The Magi,” (Epiphany Sermon, January 6th 2016)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew 2:1-12


Today is the day that my little wooden Magi finally make it into the nativity scene on my mantel! Throughout Advent and Christmastide they move around the house, a little closer each day, until they come to rest before the manger and offer their gifts.

Some people take down all their Christmas decorations on Epiphany, but since my Magi don’t even join the crèche until then, I leave it up until later, sometimes until the Feast of the Presentation at the beginning of February! It just seems a lot more fair to give them their chance to be seen.

I certainly give them more time on stage than the writer of the Gospel of Matthew did. Their story is only found in that one Gospel, and it’s over and done in only twelve verses. There is also no mention of them in any parallel or contemporary texts.

Bartolomé_Esteban_Murillo_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe composer Gian-Carlo Menotti sought to flesh them out in his opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, which is where I first became familiar with their traditional names (Kaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior), and where I first began to imagine them as people with distinct personalities. Kaspar was always my favourite: he is portrayed as eccentric and quite deaf, and shows the titular child Amahl his special box, which has one drawer full of beautiful stones, one of brightly coloured beads, and in the third drawer…oh little boy, oh little boy…in the third drawer I keep…licorice.

But all of this is really midrash. In our one single solitary source, these people have no names, no descriptions – the text doesn’t even say how many of them there are. The tradition says there are three because there are three gifts. But who’s to say there couldn’t have been more or less? Some might even ask if they ever existed at all, having only been substantiated by one single source.

We’re not going to go any further down that road, because actually it really doesn’t matter. What was important to Matthew was what they represented, what they meant for the story of Jesus. This is what must be important to us as well.

So who were these people? What would their presence, their journey, their gifts have meant to the people of Matthew’s time? What would they have meant to this new family in Bethlehem in first century Palestine? When we know this, it might be easier to figure out what their story should mean to us.

First of all, the word Magi might not mean much to us today. It is where we get the words “magic” and “magician” from, and Magi did have these associations back then. But one thing we might not know as 21st century people is that they also had a priestly function. The word Magi could also refer to a priestly caste of the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrianism is what I would call a “root faith,” one which heavily informed the major monotheistic faiths. Much of its worldview and vocabulary would be familiar to us as Christians, which makes sense as it arose out of Persia, and in fact still exists there and across the globe.

If our Magi were priests devoted to the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda, they would have believed that the purpose of all life was to make the world progress to perfection through adopting three tenets: Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta (Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds). They would also have believed in fravashi, a personal spirit of an individual dead, living, or yet-unborn. According to one of the commentaries I read, it was commonly believed that the fravashi of a great man could be a star. This may have been one of their reasons for studying the stars so closely.

Either way they were members of a faith different from Judaism. Most of the references to Magi in contemporary Jewish sources were negative. Matthew clearly meant for us to see them first and foremost as foreign, perhaps even a little suspect.

Second, we know they are “wise,” mostly because this is one of the translations of the Greek word for Magi. But it’s quite an appropriate one. Despite the fact that they are Gentiles, they are learned enough to recognize the star of the Messiah when they see it, and they immediately begin to follow it.

This might not seem terribly wise at first. It seems downright reckless when they stroll right into the palace of King Herod and say, in essence, “Hi, there! We see that the real King of the Jews has been born somewhere around here. Can you tell us where to find him so we can go and worship him?” What kind of people are these guys?

When these questionably wise people ask this terribly reckless question, Herod does not respond by slaughtering them in an offended rage.

He is afraid. He immediately goes and consults his best think tank, and they give him the answer, and he goes to consult with the Magi again, asking them when the star rose, since that will help him determine the age of the child.

He clearly trusts that they know what they’re talking about.

Finally, he sends them on to Bethlehem, asking them to search for the child so that Herod can go and worship as well.

Of course we know that’s not what he really wants to do.

Here’s a question: Why would Herod not go with them, or send a servant along with them to both find and murder the child right away, instead of trusting that the Magi will come back (which of course, they don’t)?

Maybe he thought it was better to take his chances by himself…because maybe he was afraid of them too.

They are devout, and they are wise – so wise that they can afford to tell the truth to a king with a notoriously short temper.

Third, they are open. It’s downright heroic how open they are: to the truth, to humility, and to a little bit of craftiness when required.

They are open enough to think it’s a good idea to inform Herod of this birth, just on the off-chance that he would do the right thing.

They are open enough to not be surprised when they discover that the child is not in a grand palace, and his parents are not people of means.

They are open enough to accept and obey the dream which warns them not to risk Herod’s company again.

And they are open enough to trust that these people and their infant are about God’s work right where they are. They do not take the family with them to shelter them, or bestow upon them enough riches to sustain them for years. They offer them gifts fit for a king, which I like to imagine Mary and Joseph used to finance their trip to Egypt in the next chapter. They empower, but do not linger or demand anything more. Their presence before the King of Kings is gift enough for them.

They are open enough to understand that this child, born to desperately poor refugees and running the risk of murder by Herod’s soldiers, is the Messiah, no matter how tiny, weak, and vulnerable he looks.

They get it.

The foreigners, the ones who are outside the “true” faith, the ones who offer their gifts but return to their homes never having adopted this “true” faith, even after seeing the face of the Anointed One, get it.

The suspect, the strange, the exotic, the heathen, understand, and take it for granted that others would.

Their wisdom is invaluable to our tradition, no matter who they were or what happened to them outside of the few verses of this text. They teach us to be a little clownish, considering the ridiculous as sacred truth, entertaining the destitute as though they were royalty, expecting angels in alleyways and emperors in stables.

This Epiphany tide, as we bathe in the light which entered every corner of the world, let these wise ones and their star guide you into a new perspective, a new wisdom, a new openness.

Venture far afield, bring your gifts, and prepare to be surprised at where you find God among us.