Isaiah 60.1-6, Ps 72.1-14, Eph 3.1-12, Matt 2.1-12
Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
The Epiphany season, which begins today, is a season of light. Epiphany means “shining forth”. It is part of the Christmas season, which begins with the story of a baby in a manger, but certainly doesn’t end there. The whole season lasts until Candlemas, on Feb 2nd, and as it progresses we hear all sorts of stories of people recognising Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, seeing him for who he is. Stories which are full of moments when the penny drops, when the light suddenly goes on. And as we hear them we are invited to ponder who we think Jesus is and why he matters.
The stories we hear in the Epiphany season are varied. Our readings, prayers and hymns remind us of Jesus baptism, the calling of the disciples, Jesus changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana, and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Candlemas story which finishes the season, when Simeon and Anna recognise the infant Jesus as “the light that lightens the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel.” But they are all held together by one theme, the theme of revelation – God shining forth, showing himself to us. And to begin this cycle we hear the story which we probably associate most strongly with Epiphany, the story of the Magi, with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh who follow the light of the star to find the Christ child in Bethlehem.
It’s a wonderful story, but one which has often baffled people just as much as it has enlightened them. It has accumulated vast amounts of baggage which obscures its original meaning. But that meaning is still there to be found if you are prepared to dig a bit, so that’s what we are going to do. The biggest piece of baggage we need to shed, of course, is any idea that these magi are kings – wealthy, powerful people. It’s an idea with a long history and a deep hold on the popular imagination, so it’s not easy to shed. It goes right back to the time when Christianity had just become the state religion of the Roman empire, and it got even more deeply entrenched as the church grew in power and wealth through the Middle Ages. As it did so, there was a great incentive to find things in the Christian story which legitimised power and wealth – made it ok. Turning the Magi into kings was one way of doing that.
The Medici family, for example, who effectively ruled Florence in the fifteenth century and were filthy rich, loved the story of the Magi. See! The rich are welcomed by God and approved of. Greed is good, as modern parlance would put it. With a skilful use of tunnel vision they focussed on the Magi – interpreted as kings - and ignored all those other pesky passages which talked about the dangers of heaping up treasure on earth, of the impossibility of getting camels through the eyes of needles, of God putting down the mighty from their seats and exalting the humble and meek. The Medici loved this story so much that they literally had themselves painted into it. The image I’ve printed on the pew leaflet is one example among many. It is Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi” and the “wise man” kneeling before Jesus is actually a portrait of Cosimo de Medici. The one kneeling centre stage is his son, Piero, and the snooty looking young man in the bottom left hand corner is his son, Lorenzo the Magnificent as he came to be called…and doesn’t it just show!
But there’s nothing in the Gospel story to suggest that the Magi were kings, or that they were wealthy or powerful – their gold, frankincense and myrrh might have been all the possessions they had for all we know. It is the symbolism of the gifts which Matthew cares about, not their financial value. They point to Jesus as king and priest.
So if the Magi aren’t kings, what about calling them wise men, as the translation we read today says? That’s a bit misleading too, because actually they don’t display much wisdom in this story at all. They might know all about the stars, but they don’t seem to know much about the human heart, especially about the jealous human heart of a man like King Herod. They blunder around Jerusalem stirring up excitement with their indiscreet questions about the Messiah. In doing so, they not only put Jesus’ life in danger, they also trigger the massacre of all the other children of Bethlehem. Where’s the wisdom in that? The story doesn’t point to their wisdom, but to God’s revelation of himself to them. They don’t know where the Messiah is. They can’t find him – that’s the point. It is God’s work, and God’s wisdom, not theirs, which leads them to discover the new king they have been searching for.
So, if they aren’t kings and they aren’t wise men, who are they? The answer is that they are who the Greek text says they are. They are Magi. That’s Matthew’s point and we do both him and ourselves a favour if we take him at his word on that instead of trying to translate them into something else. We haven’t got an exact parallel today, but the Magi were a sort of cross between scientists, philosophers, astrologers and priests. That might sound odd to us but it didn’t to people at the time, because they didn’t put those things in separate boxes as we tend to. The Magi were of the Zoroastrian faith and they believed that the gods communicated with them through the things they saw in the world around them and the skies above them – hence the star-gazing. What is crucial for our story, though, is that the Magi had originated in Babylon, and Babylon is tremendously significant in the Bible.
Babylon was a hotbed of science and philosophy and religion – all the things that Magi loved. The Babylonians gave us things like the sixty minute hour and the seven day week, for example, as by products of their attempts to measure the passage of time and predict the movements of the heavens.
But Babylon to Jewish people was also the ancient enemy, the nation which had destroyed Jerusalem 600 years before Christ, the place to which they had been exiled. The exiles thought they would never come home again, and it was while they were there, that they started to gather together their ancient writings into what eventually became our Old Testament, as they realised how vulnerable their culture was. And as they did so the prophets spoke to them. Prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah encouraged them to trust God’s promise that he would one day lead them home. Their prophecies even described a time when Babylon would come to Jerusalem to worship and bring tribute – we heard one of those prophecies in our first reading today. To be honest there was often more than a hint of the revenge fantasy about these prophecies. Babylon wouldn’t just come to Jerusalem; it would be humiliated there as its people knelt in homage. You can understand the exiles enjoying that thought, but the desire for revenge is never healthy. The world God wants is not going to be built by replacing one oppressive regime with another. There is no peace in that, none of the wholeness God wants for his children.
But the image took hold, and Matthew very deliberately triggers it in the minds of the Jewish Christians for whom he wrote his Gospel. “…after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, magi from the East came to Jerusalem.” Magi from the east! Babylonians…! It’s all starting to happen as we expect! But then comes the twist, the surprise that makes all the difference, because when the magi from the east get to Jerusalem, what they are seeking for isn’t there. People had looked forward to this day for centuries, when their ancient enemy would come begging to worship the Jewish God and follow his Messiah, but they have no Messiah to offer them. Herod, the religious authorities, the people of Jerusalem have no idea what is going on. God has bypassed them completely. And when the magi find the Christ Child, though they are overwhelmed with joy and kneel and worship, they don’t feel any need to hang around in Israel or become Jewish. They go home, taking whatever it is they have found and making sense of it in their own way in their own culture. And it doesn’t seem to matter a bit to God.
I said at the beginning that the stories we tell in the Epiphany season are all about revelation, the way people see God afresh in Jesus and become convinced that he is God’s Son. They weren’t talking in biological, genetic terms when they called him Son of God – they didn’t have our understanding of DNA and the biology of conception - and we can’t be sure exactly what they did mean by it, but at the very least they were saying that in Jesus they saw God’s likeness more clearly, more deeply and more completely than they had ever done before. The things he said, the things he did, his authority, his power to change people not through force but through love had all the hallmarks for them of the nature of God who was the source of life and love and the true peace that heals the world. In him they met the God of their ancestors, the God they already knew. But they also met a God who surprised them, a God who wouldn’t be put in a box, who you couldn’t control or corral or claim as your own exclusive property. They met a God who didn’t want to humiliate his enemies but to forgive them and welcome them. They met a God who challenged every last assumption you had and if it wasn’t rooted and grounded in love, called you to get rid of it.
The story of the Magi encapsulates that revelation of God, who rejects revenge, possessiveness and self-righteousness, and calls his followers to do the same. I pray that this Epiphany we will see his star shining into the places where suspicion and hatred still hold sway in us, and that we will have the courage to follow that star and find his great and generous love which alone can overcome them.