In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
It’s the feast of the Epiphany once again, which means we’re in that post-Christmas no-man’s land period where all the partying is over but the decorations are still up and where we’re wondering whether it’s still safe to eat some of that leftover food.
The crowds of carolers who filled the rectory lawn have all gone home and the triple-figure attendance we enjoyed on Christmas Day seems like a distant dream. Now it’s just the serious Christians left – just us and the baby Jesus … OUR baby Jesus.
And since it’s the feast of the Epiphany, it’s also time to do what I do every year at this time in honour of those ancient astrologers who followed the star to Bethlehem – namely, I consult my horoscope (courtesy of www.astrology.com):
“With Mars in Sagittarius at the beginning of the year, you’ve got big plans – and won’t want to waste any time getting started. But you may be overly optimistic about what’s actually doable with the time and resources you have. …
After all, Aquarius, you’re not just out to make a quick buck – your work serves a higher purpose and answers to a higher authority. And with Jupiter and Pluto aligning three times this year, intangible rewards are just as important, if not more, than material ones. Fortunes may rise and fall this year, but as long as you know your work is serving the greater good, you’re happy to ride out the ups and downs. The sextiles between Jupiter in Capricorn and Neptune in Pisces assist you in aligning your career path with your deepest humanitarian values.
Still, there may be some conflicts of interest when planets in Cancer, your house of work, oppose Jupiter, Pluto, and Saturn in Capricorn. Your eagerness to serve feels at odds with your low-key ambition for money, status, or power. But Aquarius, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to achieve more in your career – as long as you’re honest about your true objectives. When put in the service of the greater good, ambition can be a powerful thing!
Stick with it, and your disciplined efforts should pay off in December, …”
DECEMBER! That’s twelve months away (almost). I don’t want to wait twelve months before I see any results for my efforts. That’s a rather disturbing thought, and surely overly pessimistic, or am I being “overly optimistic about what’s actually doable with the time and resources [I] have.”
Why December anyway? Oh, read on …
“Your disciplined efforts should pay off in December when Saturn and Jupiter move into your sign and make their Great Conjunction on the twenty-first.”
The 21st of December! That really is almost twelve months away! That’s next Christmas, and we haven’t taken down the decorations from this Christmas!
Perhaps I need to consult another horoscope? I’m sure I can find something more encouraging out there than this, or perhaps I should just read last year’s horoscope again, which I’m sure promised lots of good things, even if not many of them turned out to be true. Or perhaps I should just follow the advice of the prophets of old and have nothing to do with these astrological star-gazing pagans!
“Those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons predict what shall befall you. Behold, they are like stubble,” says the Lord (according to Isaiah the prophet). “The fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame.” (Isaiah 47:13‑14)
Likewise, Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of these peoples are false.” (10:2‑3)
Well … that was the Old Testament, I hear you say, and the people of God had evidently lightened up a lot by the time Jesus was born as they welcomed those astrologers from the East! Well … maybe, but these people are referred to as ‘magi’ by the Gospel writer, Matthew, and there are only two other references to ‘magi’ in the New Testament, and neither of them is encouraging.
Both turn up in the ‘Acts of the Apostles’. The first magi is Elymas, known as ‘Elymas, the false prophet’ (in Acts 13) and the second is Simon Magus (in Acts 8) – the magician who offers money to the Apostles in order to buy the powers of the Holy Spirit. Both these men receive rather short shrift from the Apostles!
Of course, I’m not suggesting that these two rogues who turn up in the Book of Acts were necessarily on the same track, spiritually, as the magi who appear at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Even so, they are all ‘magi’ in the original Greek text – the word from which we get our English word, ‘magician’.
To say that these men were magicians doesn’t tell us a lot, but it does tell us some things, and this is probably a good point at which to try to extract what information the Gospel-writer does give us about these characters from the myths and legends that have grown up around them over the course of Christian history.
Firstly, They are magicians. They are not kings. We happily sing “We three kings from orient are”, but maybe that’s because “we three magicians from orient are” doesn’t fit the metre of the song so well, or maybe it’s because the three kings myth has a long history to it, most likely going back to the pious imagination of the early church who saw in these men the fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 72:11 – “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him”
Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using your imagination a bit when it comes to some of these more bizarre Biblical stories, and yet I’m conscious that some of those imaginings stray fairly radically from the Gospel account.
The Gospel never tells us how many magi there were that visited Jesus. We tend to assume that there were three because three gifts are mentioned, but over the years these three were even given names – Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar – and if you look at a lot of the traditional artistic depictions of these men, you’ll see that they are often taken to represent three distinct racial groups.
Balthazar is normally depicted as black. Melchior has a more swarthy, Arabic, complexion, and Gaspar is regularly depicted as being oriental. When they are depicted as worshipping the new-born king, Jesus is invariably depicted as white, such that you have all the other races bowing down before the white guy – a depiction that few of us would see as being consistent with Gospel values.
As I say, we have to be careful where the pious imagination takes us. Even so, I don’t think it’s stretching the imagination too far to suggest that Matthew sees these men (and they almost certainly were men) as Zoroastrian court officials from Persia (modern-day Iran).
It’s worth pausing and reflecting on that for a moment – at a time when the American President seems intent on provoking a war with the descendants of these magi. The Persians of old were renowned for a number of things, including proficiency in the mathematics, the sciences, and in warfare. They had plenty of wise men and plenty of great warriors, and no ancient king with any sense would have rushed into war with Persia. Modern-day kings might best be well advised to show similar caution.
In terms of their religion, Zoroastrianism is still around today in the Islamic Republic of Iran and is still embraced by the government as an acceptable form of religion.
Zoroastrianism goes back to the prophet Zoroaster, who himself was believed to have been born of a 15- year-old Persian virgin. Like Jesus too, he started ministry at age of 30 after defeating all of Satan’s temptations, and he predicted that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.”
Zoroastrian priests believed that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars and, like the Jews, the Zoroastrians were, at the time, anticipating the birth of a universal savior. This suggests that these magi came to Jesus, not only because they saw unusual signs in the sky, but also on the basis of Zoroastrian virgin-birth prophecies. If this is indeed the story St Matthew is telling, Matthew clearly believed that other Scriptures outside of the Hebrew Bible foretold the coming of Israel’s Messiah.
None of this is to suggest, of course, that St Matthew had a more universalist view of religion, such that he saw all religions as being different paths leading to the same great truth. On the contrary, Matthew, of all the Gospels, is the most intent on connecting Jesus to the religion of ancient Israel, and in the Torah and the prophets, the religions of the astrologers were always seen as false alternatives to the one true faith – as bad religion, and even as idolatry!
You may remember the battle that Moses and Aaron had with the magi of Pharaoh as recorded in the book of Exodus, chapter seven (verses 10 to 12). Both Moses and Aaron and the magi of Pharaoh display their proficiency in turning their staffs into snakes, you may remember, but the magic of Moses and Aaron is more powerful than that of the magi in that case. Their snakes eat those of the Pharaoh’s magi!
If we shoot forward to the book of Daniel, Daniel and his three friends (shake your bed, make your bed, and in to bed you go) – they themselves were magi in the court of Nebuchadnezzar.
They show themselves to be wiser than the other magi. Daniel can interpret dreams when the others can’t, and in many and various ways Daniel and his three friends demonstrate time and time again their superiority over their professional peers, and there is a very simple reason for this: Daniel and his friends are servants of the one true God and the rest of the magi are not!
This pretty much sums it up, I believe, when it comes to the greater Biblical view of magi. They are not respected members of an alternative religious group, worthy of serious consideration for their contribution to the broader religious landscape. Their spirituality is not affirmed as an authentic expression of godly intuition. From a traditional Biblical point of view, the magi are members of a pagan religion that is incompatible with the worship of the one true God!
They do not seek for God in the right way. Their predictions are not to be relied upon or even listened to. The magi are not in any way members of the historic people of God, and yet … when we look around the Nativity scene … there they are, standing alongside us – the magi – and when we ask them how they got here, they tell us that they saw it in the stars!
‘Who invited you here?’ That’s the obvious question, and yet we know the obvious answer too, and we know too that while, in the great divide between us and them, these people are most archetypally them, nonetheless, they have as much right to lay claim the baby Jesus as their own as we do.
I don’t know how many of you had the privilege of being part of our Christmas Carols on the old rectory lawn a couple of weeks ago. There were about a hundred of us there, and the highlight for me was most definitely the arrival of my friend, Sheikh Shoiab Naqvi, who has graced us with his presence for a series of Christmases now.
I’m sure some people thought Shoiab was a part of the nativity presentation as he came in his formal Sheikh’s robes and he looked like a wise man from the East, which, in fact, he is – a wise man from Pakistan, to be more precise.
Shoiab showered us with Christmas presents from his community, the Muhammadi Welfare Association of Kemp’s Creek, as he always does. Their generosity is frankly embarrassing, but it did give us a number of extra hamper-style gifts that we were able to distribute amongst the residents of our local boarding house.
And why were Shoiab and the other members of his community here that night? Were they just there to show us respect as a different religious group on one of our holy days? No! They came to honour Jesus in accordance with their tradition, and so Shoiab read out some appropriate words about Jesus from the Qur’an – honoring Jesus as he understood Him from within the Shia Muslim tradition. And I don’t think you could have had a more Epiphanic event if you tried (if that’s a word).
It is a hard truth to come to terms with, but what Epiphany proclaims to us this year as it does every year is that our baby Jesus is also their baby Jesus, and by ‘them’ I mean all of them – all peoples of all nations, regardless of gender, race or religion. Our baby Jesus is their baby Jesus. Our savior is their savior. Our God is there God. Everyone is invited. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is valued.
First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 5th of January 2020.