Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-12
Today’s Bible story is a parable for our own faith journey. The Magi came from far away. It took them a long time. They saw a bright star in the sky. It led them to the right location to find the Messiah. Like the Magi, we may imagine meeting Jesus by the light of the star that burns brightly, and as the Light that has come into the world.The Christian hope is that our journeys of life will lead to where the Christ-child lies, to fill us with joy, just like the Magi.
What do we mean by ‘truth’?
I’m starting this homily by repeating what I said on Christmas Eve about Luke’s story of shepherds and angels. Is the story true? What do we mean by truth? Because exactly the same comments apply to Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. They came bearing gifts of gold and costly spices, The Gentile Magi are the parallel to Luke’s local, Jewish, shepherds. Like the shepherds, these foreign people recognized Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.
Maybe the story is factually true. Or maybe it offers us a sacred truth in terms of mythology. That would be, to quote the Oglala Lakota Black Elk, as I did on Christmas Eve. “I don’t know whether it happened that way, but the story is true.”
What was Matthew trying to tell us in this story about a faith journey?
First and most obviously, that Jesus was the Messiah. The Magi described him as the King of the Jews to King Herod, and they brought significant gifts. This definitely wasn’t a baby shower for the infant Jesus, with little sleepers and baby blankets. Gold symbolizes kingship – Jesus to be the ruler of the world. Frankincense and myrrh were royal spices or perfumes. Many cultures used them in religious rituals. Myrrh was also a burial ointment. So reading backwards, it foretold Jesus’ fate to die on the Cross.
Matthew’s view of King Herod
When the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, they asked King Herod where to find the new-born King of the Jews. Herod didn’t know anything about it. So he asked the Jewish theological leadership (the chief priests and scribes) where to find him. They replied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judea, as had been foretold by the prophet Micah.
This gives us a glimpse into Matthew’s view of Herod. Herod had never really been accepted as authentically Jewish. His family were converts to Judaism, rather than “old stock.” Perhaps his knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures was a bit hazy.
Matthew also tells that Herod was “frightened”. The Magi said that they were looking for a King of the Jews. Herod was personally insecure because he was a puppet of the Roman occupiers. Despite a big Temple renovation project, the Jewish people didn’t like him. So when the Magi came and told Herod about another king in Judea, a rival, no wonder he was frightened!
A new-born King of the Jews was a serious threat
So when the Temple authorities said where to find the Messiah, Herod called the Magi back. He gave them the information, but asked them to return once they had found the Messiah, saying that he also wanted to pay homage. However, a dream warned the Magi not to return to Herod – they could not trust him. Next week, we shall see why.
Herod was an energetic but brutal ruler. His personal insecurity is typical of leaders who insist on absolute obedience and hold on to their positions with raw power. Think Bashir al-Assad, Vladimir Putin. Or in the previous generation, Sadaam Hussein, Mohammar Qadaffi. Theirs is really not leadership at all, because leaders have followers. Terrified subjects don’t really count.
The Epiphany season tells a story in opposites. Herod keeps power by force and intimidation. Later, when Jesus grows up, he will call disciples who voluntarily give up their old way of life to become his followers.
But what were the Magi?
The Greek word magos is the root of our words magic and magician. The corresponding word in Hebrew Scripture means fortune-teller, soothsayer, or magician. These words imply that the Magi were somewhat shady characters. But magos were originally priests in ancient Middle Eastern religions. The King James translation of the Bible gave them a better press as Wise Men.
The Magi had set out from their far-off lands because they saw a star. In the ancient world, astrology was a respected discipline. It was much more than predicting your love life for the next month. Astrologers kept detailed records of the positions of the fixed and wandering stars (planets). Star-watching allowed ancient peoples when to sow crops and harvest them. It also indicated when to carry out religious festivals such as Midsummer Day or Winter Solstice.
Astrologers also paid attention to unusual celestial events such as eclipses. Reasonably, for their time, they considered unusual events in the heavens to be signs of important events taking place on earth. Matthew says that the Magi to undertook their journey because of what they had seen in the sky. It was so significant to them that they had to find out about it. It was a kind of faith journey. But they didn’t know what they would find or where.
A sense of wonder
I have often used the word ‘wonderful’ (in its real meaning of ‘full of wonder’) to describe the Christmas stories. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, with the angels appearing to the shepherds who rushed to Bethlehem. Matthew’s story about the visit of the Magi. ‘Wonder’ implies that we shouldn’t try to analyze these stories scientifically or historically. That’s the wrong kind of truth.
Matthew didn’t say that the Magi were kings, or tell that there were three of them, with one gift each. We are familiar with these modern accretions to Matthew’s story from Christmas cards and pageants. They enhance our sense of wonder, and help us to visualize the scene. Which of us has never embellished an anecdote to bring it more to life? Arriving on camels? Why not? Three Wise Men, with one gift each? Why not? Seems reasonable. Specifically kings, named Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior? Why not? Kings were natural rulers throughout most of the Christian era.
As a chemist, I can hardly deny the many wonderful things that have come out of our modern scientific, technological, and literal approach to life – notably polyester and cotton shirts that do not need ironing! But we have missed out on story-telling. The Bible was written in and for an age of story-telling. I stress ‘telling’ because few people could read.
How the Magi’s faith journey is a parable for ours
Jesus himself told stories – we call them parables – and we are familiar with the idea that they are not just stories about mustard seeds or wicked tenants. We look for the meaning underneath the surface. Personally, I believe that this is what Luke and Matthew were doing with their accounts of the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi. Their stories begin the narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and purpose.
Jesus came into the world as a manifestation of God – that theme of Clement, Athanasius, and Augustine – in order that we human beings might strive to become divine. Angels announced it to shepherds, representing the people of Israel. The Magi recognized Jesus from the wider, Gentile world.
I see today’s Bible story as a parable for our own faith journey. The Magi came from far away. It took them a long time. Our own spiritual journeys will last a lifetime. The Magi saw a bright star in the sky. It led them to the right location to find the Messiah. John’s Gospel, from which we read on Christmas Day, calls Jesus the Light that came into the world. Darkness cannot overcome it. Like the Magi, we may imagine seeing Jesus as both the star that burns brightly, and the Light that has come into the world. The Christian hope is that our faith journey will lead to where the Christ-child lies, to fill us with joy, just like the Magi.