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.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)
Today we mark the end of the Christmas season – the Day of Epiphany. We celebrate this day to reflect on the visit of the Magi – the wise men – to Jesus and the giving of their gifts. We reflect on the meaning of this visit of those wise ones to see Jesus.
Epiphany is about Jesus and his message being available and relevant to people of every age and race. Jesus isn’t just a Jewish prophet with an exciting message, but God made present amongst us and available to all of us to worship and follow. God’s love reaches beyond the everyday barriers of race and class; something the Magi didn’t quite get at first.
So Who Were the Magi?
We don’t know much about the Magi from Scripture. All Saint Matthew tells us is that they were “Magi from the East”. Some translations have “Wise men from the East”. The word in Greek refers to priests of the Zoroastrian religion. They came from Persia, the countries now known as Iran and Iraq, and they saw meaning in the movement of the stars. Their visit fits an Eastern pattern of great births being accompanied by momentous events in the sky. Certainly we know of a comet in 11BCE in Gemini with its head towards Leo, seen by many as a symbol of Judah. We also know of planetary conjunctions in both 7BCE and 6 BCE which would have added to a sense that momentous happenings were on the way. The Magi would have noticed these things and taken them seriously. But who were they?
One commentator, Brian Stoffregen puts it like this;
“Originally in Persia, Magi were dream- interpreters. By Jesus’ time, the term referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. They were horoscope fanatics – a practice condemned by Jewish standards. We might compare them to people in fortune – telling booths, or people on the “psychic hotline” or other “occupations” that foretell the future by stars, tea leaves, Tarot cards etc. They were magicians, astronomers, star-gazers, pseudo-scientists, fortune tellers..”
Another writer, Nathan Nettleton, puts it like this;
“They were the speakers of the sacred words at the pagan sacrifices. At worst, the term referred to a magician or sorcerer, or even a deceiver. Magi were people whose activities were repeatedly condemned and prohibited throughout the scriptures and were completely anathema to the people of Israel.”
Whilst in English we get the words “magic” and “magician” from Magi, the Zoroastrian religion forbade sorcery. They clearly were looking for a new king and had found meaning in the movement of the planets and stars which led them to come to Israel to greet the new-born king. They journeyed from their homes in Persia to Bethlehem in search of this baby. Instead of angels and visions, we have the image of the Magi following a sign in the skies – in nature – and for a long period of time. The magi see the intentions of God in the skies. This is not new: Psalm 19 tells us that the heavens themselves declare who God is, and that his handiwork is seen in created nature. “We observed his star at its rising”. The magi know that there is something significant happening.
When did they come?
The Gospel of Saint Luke doesn’t mention the Magi and holds that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth after the presentation of Jesus at the Temple where he was circumcised. It’s probable that Saint Luke didn’t know of this episode in Jesus’ early life. Saint Matthew seems to place the visit of the Magi some time after Jesus’ birth. The Holy Family are in a “house” not in the stable of the inn. Herod kills all the newborn boys under the age of two years. So it’s likely that the Holy Family had stayed for some time in Bethlehem and the Magi came some time after Jesus’ birth, perhaps as long as two years after.
WHY did they come?
Clearly, the Magi were searching. The Magi recognized much of the truth of Jesus, who he was and what he would become. The magi had a general idea of this God and this King of the Jews, but they didn’t really know who or what they were looking for. Bono and U2 were criticized some years ago by some supposedly orthodox Christians when they produced a song entitled, “I still haven’t found what I am looking for.” I can’t see the problem with that especially given the spiritual depths in many of their songs. You see, the example of the Magi was that they were searchers, not really knowing what or who they were looking for. They didn’t claim to have it all but they saw their lives as a journey of discovery. And in that they are an example to us. We don’t know it all. But if we like them are prepared to be diligent seekers, then like them we may be graced by God’s light, by our Epiphany. When the wise men finally found Jesus, we are told that their first response was joy – “they were overwhelmed with joy”. That is what happens when we find Jesus. This is what awaits us at the end of the journey. Next, they paid him homage – they worshiped him and acknowledged Him as King. After the joy comes the worship. That means acknowledging Jesus as King. Jesus as the center. Jesus as Lord. And then, after joy and after worship, comes offering of their gifts. In response to who Jesus is and the joy He gives, we offer ourselves and our gifts to Him.
So my message for today is to dare, like them, to take the risk of seeking, and God may well bless us with our own Epiphanies which transform us as doubtless the Magi were transformed by what must have been a surprising experience for them as they knelt before the infant Jesus.
So how do you find Jesus? Maybe you can start out like the Magi – with a general idea of God, and a general idea that He is guiding you. Like the Magi, we need to turn to the scriptures. If you don’t read them, you will never really get the specific directions that God is trying to give you. Approach them with the right spirit, the right purpose. Ask for help along the way – the church, God’s people, are meant to help you along that way. The wise men knew when they needed to ask someone else for help. And pray. Ask God. When you find Jesus, rejoice. After all, He is God. Put Him in the center of your life. Ask yourself whether what you are doing honors him a King. Offer to him what you have, who you are.
Where can this Jesus be found? He is with you now. Won’t you seek Him? Won’t you recognize Him? Won’t you let Him fill YOUR life with joy? Amen.
Prior Beckett is the Prior of the Order of Preachers, Independent in the Unified Old Catholic Church. He and his husband live in South Carolina with their two lovely canine children.