What must Mary have thought when she first opened the door and found a group of Iranian astrologers, there to celebrate the birth of her son? These characters seem so inappropriate in the Christmas narrative, but maybe that’s the point?
The Xmas season is over! We’ve wished each other a Merry Xmas AND a Happy New Year, and now the festive season is PAST. The holidays (for most of us) are over. The time for singing carols and wishing peace and goodwill to all is finished. The presents have been handed out. The cards have all been delivered. The champagne has been consumed. The New Year resolutions have all been made. The decorations are all coming down. The trees have been dismantled. The metal ones have been repacked and the wooden ones are being repulped – all ready for next year. The decorations have come off the walls. The checkout chicks are no longer wearing the plush red hats as they process your groceries, and they are processing those groceries with a little less cheer. Santa is noticeably absent.
In the tradition of the church there are 12 days of Christmas, being the 12 days after Christmas, and this week we struck that 12th day, which means that we have reached Epiphany – the celebration of the coming of the wise men who follow the star to Bethlehem to find Jesus. This means that, ecclesiastically speaking, we are really at the climax of our Christmas season, despite the fact that this is not how our department stores interpret it. There everything seems to be coming down even faster than it went up.
I note that my household stands in dogmatic opposition to this trend. Our wreath is still on the door, our tree is still up, and there is still Christmas pud in the fridge! This is our way of making a stand and bringing our family properly into sync with the ecclesiastical calendar (either that or it’s just laziness).
Either way, I do find it frankly disappointing that Christmas has to die so quickly after December 25. Santa surely doesn’t have to disappear so quickly? It’s not a fixed part of the mythology, as far as I know, that as soon as Santa drops off the last present, he has to high tail it back to the North Pole, without even resting the reindeer? Perhaps he could just hang around the stores for another week or so asking kids: “how did you like the presents? Did I get it right this year?” That would certainly put an end to the sort of problems you hear about, where the kid’s first encounter with Santa includes a solid kick in the shins, with an accompanying “that’s for last year, you hopeless bastard!” No … catch the kid while he’s still full of Christmas cheer and in a good mood, and maybe we can all make a smoother transition into the next Christmas period.
But that’s not the way we do it. No. The presents have all been bought. The money has been made. The Santa’s have played their role, and there is nothing left for them to do. And so they vanish from sight.
The other group that normally vanishes from sight at about this time of year are the extras who fill the pews on Christmas day. ‘C&E’s‘ we call them – ‘Christmas & Easters’. We had a decent number this year! Mind you, they never put much in the offertory plate though, do they? Perhaps it’s the way I sneer at them at communion and farewell them with a “see ya’ll next year!”
No, I don’t really do that. Indeed, I quite frankly enjoy anticipating who might be joining us this year? And there are always a few surprises. The converse is also true, of course – that by the time we reach Epiphany, there are generally no surprises as to who turns up to church on the Sunday. It’s just us really serious church-goers – just us, the true believers, and the baby Jesus – our baby Jesus!
Yes, the rest of Australia might pay Him some sort of well-intentioned homage at Christmas time, when the tinsel is out and carols are playing and the booze is flowing freely. But we know who will be left at the little Nativity scene after all the singing dies down, after the angels go back into heaven, the shepherds return to their fields, and the little drummer boy goes back to his band – just Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and US … and the three wise men of course.
Of course they’re not technically a part of the nativity scene as such, but we like to include them there anyway. My little cardboard nativity scene I had as a child – that had the three wise men in it, right alongside the shepherds and the animals, but strictly speaking they shouldn’t be there. The wise men came later – probably about a year later – by which time we assume the family had moved beyond the stable. The normal estimates are that the baby Jesus was between six and twenty months old when the wise men appeared on the scene – hence Herod’s targetting of all children two years old and under.
The other mistake we regularly make is to assume that they were kings. The kings tradition goes back to the early church father Tertullian (who died 225). Old Testament passages said that ‘kings would come and worship him’ (eg. Isaiah 49:7), hence the tradition. By the end of 6th century, the kings all had names: Melkon (later Melchior), Balthasar, and Gasper.
In truth, we don’t know that they were kings. Indeed there’s lots we don’t know about these guys:
- We don’t really know that they were wise.
- We can’t be completely sure that they were men.
- And we’ve really got no idea of where there were three of them or not!
We are told they brought three gifts, so we assume that there were three givers, but the gifts might have distributed between a group of 20 for all we know.
It is possible that the three wise men were actually a dozen silly women! We will never know for sure. To say that we don’t know this and that about them though is not to say that we don’t know anything about them. For what we are told is that they are ‘magi’, and this tells us plenty!
Magi is the word from which we get our word ‘magic’. These people were magicians! They were not simple conjurers though, but magicians who used their magical abilities to advise kings and queens on matters of state.
Magi filled the courts of pagan nations, and had a place in European tradition as well. You will have heard of Merlin the magician, who was supposedly advisor to King Arthur of Camelot. Thewizard of Id is another (perhaps more familiar) member of the class of magi.
Daniel, in the Old Testament, was a magus (nb. I think ‘magus’ is the singular form of ‘magi’). Daniel and his three friends, who we read of in the book of Daniel, were certainly magi – employed to foretell the future, interpret dreams, and so advise the king on matters of state. Daniel and his mates though, you will remember, distinguished themselves from their fellow magi by refusing to follow all the practices of their peers, and by relying solely on their God for their prophetic powers.
This was clearly not the norm, and your average magus, so far as I can work out, was not normally a god-fearing man of prayer, but a figure much closer to the astrologers and psychics we see advertising on late-night TV and who always have prominent columns in women’s magazines!
Now I suppose I shouldn’t limit that association to women’s magazines. Perhaps they appear with equal frequency in men’s magazines. I do note though that I’m yet to see a prominent modern male astrologist. Perhaps there are some. Maybe if I look hard enough, alongside Athena Stargazer andZelda the Gypsy I’ll find Bob the Psychic. I don’t know. I suspect being a magus ain’t what it used to be!
At any rate, I’ve read through my copy of the Women’s Weekly (January 2007) as part of my preparation for today’s sermon.
Did you know Bindi has her own Women’s Weekly column now – Bindi Irwin: young daughter of the late Aussie icon, Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter)? Bindi is about eight years old, I think. How do you feel about that – seeing someone being commercialized at such a young age?
Anyway, I’m afraid I didn’t read Bindi’s column, but went straight to the Magi page – the 2007 Horoscope by Jessica Adams (senior astrologer in the Women’s Weekly’s court of the magi).
My stars looked quite enticing at first glance this year. Apparently all my personal struggles are due to come to an end!
“If you’ve had ongoing anxieties about a rival, opponent or object of loathing … this issue will disappear or your attitude relax.” That’s encouraging, isn’t it? Jessica even gives a date for this turn-around. “Mark September 2nd in your diary.” Not so encouraging! I wish she’d left that out!
Indeed, as I read through my future for the year to come, it seems advisable that I go to sleep for at least the first six months, as my fortunes aren’t really set to improve until we get towards the end of the year!
Mind you, I am encouraged in the mean time to “forget the man who was such hard work, or the prolonged shortage of suitable partners.” (I assume she means ‘business partners’)
At any rate, there is all sorts of excitement to look forward to towards the end of the year. “A whole new relationship game” is going to emerge for me around the 4th September, notably only two days after my ‘object of loathing’ has disappeared. Then a month later, around October 3rd,“a peace treaty with your ex or a brilliant bond with someone new could take off!” I think my wife should mark that one in her diary!
Now, I need to be honest with you and confess that I don’t really put a lot of trust in these astrologers – not Jessica Adams, nor Athena Stargazer, nor Zelda the Gypsy nor even Bob the Psychic. Indeed, in case you hadn’t picked it up, I actually regard the entire business of astrology with a fair degree of cynicism. And I’m in good company, for our forefathers and foremothers in the faith held to a strong tradition of decrying and even ridiculing the practice of stargazing!
The Old Testament prophets took the lead in this regard, veritably railing against the pagan magi:
Isaiah said, “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, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame.” (Isaiah 47:13-14)
Or from Jeremiah chapter 10: “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 the peoples are false.'” (Jeremiah 10:2-3)
In the New Testament, generally speaking, the magi don’t receive much better treatment. Two turn up in the book of Acts – Elymas the false prophet in Acts 13, and Simon Magus in Acts 8, who tries to buy the Holy Spirit for money. Both receive rather short shrift from the Apostles.
Like their more ancient predecessors, these magi are not respected for their art by the early church. Theirs is not considered to be a valued component in the spiritual landscape that makes up of the Kingdom of God. Their spirituality is not affirmed as an authentic expression of godly intuition. Rather, the magi are considered to be members of an alternative religion.
They do not worship the God who made the heavens and the earth. They do not seek for God in the right way. Their predictions are not to be relied upon or even listened to. These magi are, from the Biblical point of view, superstitious pagan idolaters who are strangers to Bible truth and not remotely part of the people of God, and yet … when we gather around the baby Jesus at Christmas time, we notice that they are there too, and what’s worse, they are there because God invited them!
‘How did you know that the baby was going to be born here?’ Herod asks. “God revealed it to us”, they said, “in the stars. We followed the stars and we got here.’“
There is something wonderfully peaceful and pure to be found in standing around the baby Jesus at Christmas time – taking our stand alongside the virgin mother and the godly Joseph and the gentle animals. There’s something wonderfully pure and peaceful about it, at least until you start to notice some of the others who’ve been invited to stand around there with you – the dirty old shepherds, the tax-collectors and sinners, the loose women and violent street kids, Athena Stargazer, and Bob the Psychic. And that’s not to mention all the C&E’s that we just finished saying goodbye to for another year!
Epiphany reminds us that our Christmas celebration is also their Christmas celebration because, to be blunt, our baby Jesus is actually also their baby Jesus, because our God is their God!
The visit of the Magi reminds us that Jesus is not someone that we have a copyright on, not someone that we own the rights to, not someone who is actually ours at all. He is the Lord of all, the savior of the world. The Magi did not know much. They were confused about much. But what they did know was that our baby Jesus was also their baby Jesus.
Just when we were feeling nice and smug, just when we thought we had it all sown up – knowing who was on the inside and who was on the outside. Just when we were settling down to another year of church, knowing that it is indeed we who are were God’s own people (the really serious followers of Jesus), God comes and puts in our way some good Samaritan, some godly tax-collector or drug-pusher, some Christmas and Easter, see-you-next-year-sorry-but-I-don’t-like-to-talk-about-my-religion-type, who, like the magi, doesn’t really understand very much but who realizes that Jesus is relevant to him too.
And the truth is that they’ve got as much a right to be a part of all this as we have. For we are all guests – you and I and us and them – invited together to take our stand in worship around the Lord Jesus.
Oh come. Let us adore Him. Christ the Lord.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, January, 2007.