Perhaps we need the wacky and disreputable to give us insight into who Jesus is?
Liz Stuart, 2 January 2022
Isaiah 60: 1–6; Ephesians 3: 1–12; Matthew 2: 1–12
We’re celebrating Epiphany today, but don’t think that this is the end of Christmas. In the liturgical year, Christmas doesn’t end until the feast of Candlemas – so you can keep your decorations up and keep eating the Quality Street until 2 February!
The story of the magi occurs only in the gospel of Matthew. Matthew is sparse on detail as to who these people were, just saying they were magi from the East. He does not say that there were kings or that there were three of them or, indeed, that they were men – just that they were magi. Isaiah foresaw that the nations would come to the light and the dawning brightness of Israel, bringing gold and frankincense (Isaiah 60: 3–6). In Jewish tradition the non-Israelite prophet Balaam, who refused to curse Israel but who is nevertheless always represented rather negatively in the tradition, was the father of all magi.
One theory is that the magi in Matthew’s gospel were Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world, associated with ancient Persia. A great deal of Zoroastrian worship is focused on fire, which they believe represents God’s light. Water, fire and earth are sacred elements in Zoroastrianism, and its core teaching is an emphasis on good thoughts, good words and good deeds. We are used to hearing that the gifts presented by the magi are prophetic – gold for a king, frankincense for divinity, myrrh for death and burial – but frankincense was used by Zoroastrians to sprinkle on their sacred fire to keep it alight, and myrrh was used in the same way. Zoroastrians expected a saviour figure in every generation and a final saviour who would bring about the victory of good over evil.
The point is that these people were Gentiles and representatives of a non-Jewish religion. They come to pay homage to the Christ-child, and in doing so they expose the darkness of King Herod, a Jew, who sees the child only as a threat and seeks to destroy him. I think it’s interesting that the magi don’t stay, don’t become Jesus’ disciples. They return home, they return to their own religion, their own rituals. And yet it is they, not the King of Judea, who are held up by Matthew as those who are able to see the great manifestation, the epiphany of God’s presence on earth.
In the ancient world, ‘magi’ was also a shorthand for – how can I put this? – ‘weirdos’, people who believed odd things, behaved in strange ways, dressed a little strangely. So perhaps Matthew meant to conjure up in our minds not a priestly caste of a large and influential religion but a band of disreputable believers, people on the edge not taken seriously by any of the mainstream religions of the empire. My friend, the Baptist minister and theologian John Henson, captures this in his reworking of ‘We three kings’. He says:
We are freaks who follow the stars,
Pleiades, Neptune, Venus and Mars;
men and women, dressed in linen,
peddling our lucky charms …
Whether they were Zoroastrian priests or the ancient world’s equivalent of New Age travellers, Matthew’s point is that these people have an insight into who Jesus is that his own people do not. His own people literally cannot bear his reality.
Over Christmas I watched the film Don’t Look Up on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it I would really recommend it to you. It is a film about a group of astronomers trying to convince the world that a comet is on a collision course with us and is going to destroy the earth. It’s a brilliant satirical portrayal of the way that we try to avoid the implications of climate change. The astronomers encourage people to look up at the sky, and you can see the comet coming towards the earth. Some politicians respond with the chant, ‘Don’t look up’. The magi, whoever they were, were people prepared to look up, to find the truth and to face it whatever it cost, however hard the journey.
The magi, whoever they were, were people prepared to look up, to find the truth and to face it whatever it cost.
Also over Christmas I was really touched by the relationship between the late, great Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, their close friendship obviously exploding with joy. Perhaps the message of Epiphany is that we need people from other religions, however barking they appear to us, to prevent us from becoming Herods; to help us to avoid the temptation we always face to turn good news into bad; to keep us looking up; to remind us that Jesus came for all, not just for some, not just for us; and that he accepts the love and the worship of the wacky and the different who often understand him better than his own people, us. We cannot budge them out of the nativity scene; they’ve earned the right to be there. They looked up, and all we can do is join them. Amen.