Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Magi: Fact or Fiction?
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, and in the gospel reading, we hear about the Magi, the “Three Wise Men” who visited the Nativity scene soon after Jesus’ birth. I want to share with you some interesting tidbits about the story of the Magi, of which, you may already be aware, and maybe not: (1) This account is only found in Matthew’s gospel, (2) The Magi were from the East, so they were most likely Gentiles, (3) many of the details about the Magi are not found in scripture, but come from later tradition, (4) western tradition has the Magi’s number at three (because of the three gifts), but eastern tradition says there were twelve, (5) tradition tells us their names were Balthsar, Melchior, and Caspar, (6) the word Magi in Greek does not mean royalty or Kings, but it relates to practitioners of eastern magical art (e.g. the fascination with that star over the manger), and (7) Magi did not always have a positive connotation in other parts of scripture.
Why is the story of the Epiphany event, and its later tradition additions, so important to provide meaning to Matthew’s depiction of the story of the Incarnation? First, there are threads of similarity between birth of Moses and Jesus. Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh was threatened by the idea of a great leader arising from among the Hebrew children. Herod was afraid of the threat of the promised King revealed in the Babe Jesus. Pharaoh ordered all the male children killed, and Herod did a heinous act when (according to tradition) he slaughtered the Innocents. There is also an Exodus connection in these two stories, whereby Moses led the people of Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, to become a new people to shine God’s light into the world.
In Jesus Christ, God came among us to deliver us from the bondage of the slavery of our own sin, to make all the people (Jew and Gentile alike) the lights by which all might experience the grace of God. So there is a theological connection between Moses and Jesus’ birth stories, both of which are the end pieces of the thread of God’s narrative of salvation.
Herod: a Key Character in this story
There is another, often overlooked character in this story Herod, who challenges us to consider our Epiphany moments. Herod’s response to the Epiphany, of the light entering into the world was very different from the reaction of the Magi, but such was the character of Herod. Herod Achelaus his full name, was the son of Herod and Malthace, and the brother of Herod Antipas (a later antagonist of Jesus). He ruled the region of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria in 4 BCE. Herod Achelaus treated both Jews and Samaritans with brutality and tyranny, which is the backdrop of the story we hear about today. When given control of the realm, Achelaus proceeded to kill about 3000 of the local inhabitants. After this event a prolonged revolt took place, which later led to his demise, when in 6CE Rome deposed him and exiled him to Gaul.
In Matthew’s Gospel we read these words, “Then Herod secretlycalled for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.” Herod sent them to Bethlehem to find the child, so he could “Pay him homage.” This is so ironic, because “homage” as translated from the Greek is obeisance, which Webster defines as deferential or humble respect. Herod had no intention of offering “Deferential respect” to the Babe King in the manger, because that child threatened Herod’s power and throne. Herod had no plan to humble himself before God Almighty in Flesh, the Babe in the manger, but rather, he wanted to eliminate the threat to his power, just as he did with the 3000 innocents he slaughtered.
Herod sought self-preservation not self-denial, self-importance not humility, and self worship not self-giving worship of God. That was the dilemma that Herod found himself in in that Epiphany moment, and it was the same issue he struggled with his entire life. Herod’s pursuit of power tried to overshadow the power of God’s love coming into the world. Herod’s own agenda tried to overshadow God’s story of salvation and God’s plan. When he learned about the King in the manger, Herod’s Epiphany moment and his later choices in response to it, led him not toward grace, but far away from God’s Kingdom. Have you ever had an Epiphany moment in your own spiritual journey?
Herod or Magi
Walter Brueggemann writes about Epiphany moments in his Christian Centuryarticle “Off by Nine Miles.” He reminds us that the narrative of Epiphany (primarily) is about how God’s grace broke into human history, not just for a single group of folks, but for all; (Jew and Gentile) alike. Brueggemann shows us that the subtext stories of Herod and the Maggi are actually contrasting, and personify the real conflict that exists within each of our own spiritual journeys.
When we experience an Epiphany moment in this life, when the light of the world Jesus Christ shines in our hearts and highlights the recesses that we would rather remain in darkness, we face the reality of who we are at the core. When that light shines, as Brueggemann states, “We can choose a “return to normalcy” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction, or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability.” (1)
In other words, like Herod, when our Epiphany moments come, we either choose the path of self (preservation, satisfaction, absorption) or we choose the way of self giving love in Jesus Christ. Maybe we continue to pursue our own quest for power and self-sufficiency and that will squelch the true light of hope, self-giving, humility, and vulnerability made real in Christ, who came to us as a baby, and brought hope to the poor and downtrodden, gave of himself on a cross, and then, even his love overcame death. That too was the way of the Magi. They did “not resist God’s call, but (went) on to the village and rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganized their wealth and learning, and reoriented themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials.” (1) The choices to follow the way of Jesus is always ours. Following the way of love, I mean real love, always demands a choice.
I was speaking with a trusted friend and colleague a few years ago about a very difficult and tenuous ministry situation. I opened my heart to him about how unfair the situation was, about how I was not being given the opportunity to make a change that I wanted to make, and about how the religious system was keeping us from doing God’s will. My dear friend looked at me and said very clearly, “Eric, this is not about you.” The light of Christ shone brightly into the dark recess of my heart at that moment, and I was confronted with my own desire for personal ministry success, a desire that overshadowed the fact that God was trying to do something very different from what I wanted.
“Eric, this is not about you, but it is about the ministry that is being led down a path, you wish it not to go,” my friend added. I would call that an Epiphany moment. I would say that was an instant, when what I wanted and where God was leading me to go were in polar- opposite places. Like Herod, I could have eliminated the obstacle standing in MY way, or I could have remained humble, paid homage (deferent respect) to God, and patiently wait to see where things ended up. By the grace of God, I chose the latter, and grace overcame. Throughout this rough and rugged path of life, I am sure you have had a moment, as Webster defines, that were instances of “illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure” that confronted you. Which path did you take in that moment; that of Herod or that of the Magi?
There is an interesting part of the Magi story, whereas in paying homage to Jesus, the wise men brought gifts of tribute to him. Wikipedia states that “all three gifts were ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king: Myrrh used as an anointing oil as a symbol of death, frankincense as a perfume as a symbol of deity, and gold as a valuable a symbol of kingship on earth. The key to the gifts is this, “the Magi’s gave from their abundance given them by God, and their gifts were outward signs of the faith and trust in God they received.” The Magi offered to God, from what God had given them, so it might have been used to further God’s Kingdom.
For the next eight weeks, after the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord next Sunday, and until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday March 6, we have yet another long liturgical season, but this one will be focused on Epiphany moments. During this season, I pray you will challenged to make the choices to follow the path of the Kingdom of God. I pray each you will take the Magi path and allow the light of God’s grace and truth to shine and lead you to your true selves; children of God. I pray God will show us how to be witness of God’s grace in the world every day. I pray we have the courage to take the path of those wise Eastern mystics, who chose to offer God the spiritual gifts they had been given to used by the King, in order to spread his kingdom far and wide. So, over the next eight weeks, get ready my sisters and brothers. Get ready to discover the spiritual gifts, talents, and passions has God given you, and those gifts which are are to offered back to the King, so he might use them to spread the kingdom far and wide, not just for some, but for all people, in all situations, and in all places.
(1) Brueggemann, Walter. “Off by Nine Miles.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 35, Dec. 2001, p. 15.