These wise men who had come from the East, who are they? The New Testament Greek name for them is “magoi” or, as we would say, “magi,” which means occult practitioners, fortune tellers, wizards, priestly augurs , and magicians.[i] (The English word, “magician,” comes from the Greek, magi.) The Greek name magi also includes astrologers , and so it’s no wonder that they reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew it was significant, and followed it. What was this star? There’s been endless speculation down through the centuries, some of it based on the Zodiac; some of it based on astronomy. Maybe the star was a supernova, maybe a comet, maybe a “planetary conjunction” (some astronomers dating Jupiter and Saturn and Mars passing each other around the birth year of Jesus)? The Gospel according to Matthew makes neither explanation nor apology for asserting that they followed a star.
The wise men came from “the East,” but whether that is near East, or Middle East, or far East is only a guess. There are countless different traditions. For example, St. John Chrysostom, a fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople, believed the three magi came from Yemen because, in those days, the Kings of Yemen were Jews. But there’s no indication in Matthew’s text that they were Jews. A very early Armenian tradition neither saw them as Jews nor starting out together but rather meeting up along the way, each of them a king from a foreign realm. Each of them had discovered and followed this star: one named Balthazar, a king from Arabia; another was Melchior, a king from Persia; and a third, Gaspar, a king from India. I’m saying three kings, or three wise men, or three magi, but we’re actually not told how many of these wizards came to Bethlehem. Three is just a guess because of the three gifts: three kings because of the three gifts so no one comes empty handed. In Matthew’s gospel the gifts which are presented to the child-who-would-be-king are gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They are certainly precious gifts, then as now, gifts worthy to be given by a king to a king. And why those particular gifts? You can only imagine the legends why: from Arabia, gold, the most precious mineral from earth[ii]; frankincense, a symbol of prayer, as the psalmist says, “let my prayer like incense be”[iii]; and myrrh, the fragrance of heaven, used in the anointing of bodies in the tomb (ultimately Jesus’ body!), and also mixed with oil for healing.[iv] (This morning, here in our Chapel, those of you who seek out prayers for healing will be anointed with oil and myrrh, and the incense we are using is frankincense from Jerusalem.)
The wise men are overjoyed to find the Christ. We’re not explicitly told why they were overjoyed. They present their gifts, and they kneel in homage. At some point, they set off for their homeland, or their homelands. But there’s one more supernatural augury: a dream warning them not to go back the way they had come. They had come via King Herod in Jerusalem, who was as threatened and vindictive as the wise men were attracted and elated at the prospect of greeting this child to-be-king. They do not report back to Herod, but go home another way. “They had come to Jesus who was himself the Way.” These are the words of the founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, written a century ago. “They had come to Jesus who was himself the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. None can come to Christ at Bethlehem and go away as they came. Our coming to Christ changes everything, and therefore even to the old scenes we return with changed hearts and new powers. The necessary thing is to set about old things in a new way.”[v] To set about old things in a new way. And I think they did. I think they were forever changed, the wise men. But I also think Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were forever changed because of their encounter with the magi.
The long-awaited Messiah was for the Jews. Mary and Joseph were Jews. The revelation that Mary was to give birth to the Christ child was for the Jews, to become the King of the Jews. Somewhere along Jesus’ life formation, he becomes the Savior of the World. His message, his heart enlarged. Where Matthew’s gospel begins is not where it ends. By the end, Jesus is saying, “Go into all the world…”[vi] When did things begin to change? When did it happen that Jesus’ message and mission – not just to Jews but to the whole world – begin to change? When did it begin to enlarge? With the magi. With the visitation of the wizards at Bethlehem. Jesus, of course, was an infant. But Mary and Joseph took it all in. Something very significant happened in their encounter with the wizards from foreign lands, and they were forever changed. And because of it they would raise Jesus differently.
Are we explicitly told this in the text? No. This is my interpretation of why Matthew remembered this encounter with the magi. Matthew did not personally witness the magi’s visitation. It’s a story that had been told, and retold, and remembered for at least 50 years before Matthew set out to write about. It was that significant a story to be remembered. I think this is when it began to happen: how these faithful, probably-illiterate and rather simple Jewish parents, Mary and Joseph, had their world enlarged, and because of it they would raise Jesus differently. When Jesus ultimately begins his public ministry, he says, repeatedly, “You have heard it said, but I say…” When did these new revelations begin to dawn on Jesus? With the visitation of the wizards. The infant, Jesus, did not understand this consciously, of course. But Mary and Joseph did, and something new began to be seeded into Jesus’ life formation. When Jesus ultimately finds his voice, people are amazed and ask, “What is this wisdom that has been given him?” “Where did he get these things? [vii] From the wise men, from the wizards. From many sources, surely, including from the wise men in his infancy.
Back to Bethlehem, almost immediately after the visitation of the wise men, King Herod acts on his fears and sets out to eliminate the potential rivalry of this newborn child. This is what the church remembers as the slaughter of the holy innocents, when Herod killed all newborn males around Bethlehem. Jesus is spared because Joseph was warned in a dream. Where is Joseph told to take Jesus and his bride for sanctuary and sustenance? Where to go? Not in their homeland, but to a very foreign land, to Egypt.[viii] Isn’t that fascinating?
Were the wise men, these astrologers, these kings changed because of their encounter with Jesus. I presume so. We’re not told, but I presume so. Is it that they become followers of Jesus? No. I don’t think so. There was nothing to follow. If they were old enough to be “wise men” when they visited Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, then they were probably old men. Average life expectancy in the first century was mid 30s. And we know that Jesus did not begin his public ministry until he was about 30. So these wizards went back to their homeland and never heard a word of Jesus – other than a the cooing and cry of an infant – and they died long before Jesus began his public ministry. But I’m sure they were forever changed in their encounter with Jesus.
So what do we make of this story of the wise men and the legends that how followed them down through the centuries? Several things:
- Something supernatural happened here. Revelations and very specific guidance came to Mary and Joseph, to the wise men, to shepherds, to Elizabeth and Zechariah through dreams, visions, and stars. God’s revelation came and will still come in ways beyond reason. How God will guide you and reveal life to you will be beyond what you can rationally quantify, compute, defend, explain, adjudicate. You’ve been created with a mind. Use your mind. But don’t limit God’s work of revelation to just your mind.
- Secondly, we witness in the wise men the crossing of religious traditions. I presume the wise men – these wizards, astrologers, fortune tellers, magicians – were not Jews and did not become Christians. They died too soon to even hear the Gospel, much less accept it. But they did know some profound revelation of God in the infant Jesus. And, I’m thinking that Mary and Joseph experienced a power to comprehend… what is “the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of God, to be filled with the fullness of God”[ix] in their experience with the wise men. And it came from outside the confines of their tradition. It came through the wise men. And this is how they formed Jesus, such that, when he finds his voice some 30 years later, he not only speaks to those who are outside the sacred confines of his Jewish tradition, he reveres them: prostitutes, tax collectors, shepherds, Samaritans, Syro-Phonecians, Canaanites, even children (who were regarded as chattel). Is Jesus the Savior of the world? Yes. Was he the Savior for the wise men? Yes. Not because of what they did but because of who he is. Jesus would eventually say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”[x] I think the wise men are an early example of this.
- Thirdly, for us to be open to how God’s revelation will continue to come to us, not just from within our own religious but from the outside. Rather than fighting people who believe differently than we do, or condemning them, or dismissing them, presume that they, too, have been created in the image of God and may well be a source of revelation to us. Krister Stendahl, the Swedish Lutheran bishop, who played such a leading role in interfaith dialogue, and who taught for many years here at Harvard Divinity School, named three principles that will keep our hearts open to others, especially to others whose understanding of God is different from our own. Bishop Stendahl said:
- If you want to understand another religion, ask its adherents, not its enemies.
- Don’t compare your best to their worst.
- Leave room for “holy envy,” which he explained as finding some aspect of another religion that you admire and honor, but accept that it was not yours, that it belongs to a separate faith community. Be willing to recognize elements in another religious tradition or faith, elements you admire and wish might find greater scope in your own religious tradition or faith. “Holy envy.”
What’s not to love about the wise men? Beyond being picturesque and rather exotic in the Christmas crèche, they give us a prodding inspiration about God’s ongoing revelation, far beyond all that we could ask for or imagine.[xi] Pirouette on your tippy toes and look for wonder, for inspiration, for revelation as we live into God’s future. Jesus who came “to make all things new.”[xii] And that is still true.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
[i] The Birth of the Messiah; A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, by Raymond E. Brown (New York: Doubleday, 1977), pp. 166-201.
[ii] Psalm 72:15.
[iii] Psalm 141:2.
[iv] Psalm 45:8; John 19:39-40.
[v] Richard Meux Benson, SSJE (1824-1915) in Spiritual Readings – Christmas, pp. 260-261.
[vi] Matthew 28:19-20.
[vii] Matthew 7:28; Mark 6:2.
[viii] Matthew 2:13-15.
[ix] A riff on Ephesians 3:18-19.
[x] I am appealing here to “prevenient grace.” See John 10:16: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” See also 1 John 2:1-2: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
[xi] Ephesians 3:20-21: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.”
[xii] Revelation 21:5.
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