This is the second part of a reflection on Epiphany. Check out last week’s post for a meditation about gifts. This part thinks about who may come.
Three Wise Men? Three Kings? Magi?
Every year there is confusion at the nativity play: were they kings or wise men? And what are Magi, anyway*?
The confusion, gentle reader, comes from today’s passages. Allow me to elucidate.
Matthew records ‘wise men from the east’. Where east? Probably Persia, in modern Iran / Iraq.
That’s ancient Babylonia, traditional enemies of the Jewish people. Babylon was the country that conquered the Israelites and took them as captives – think Boney M and ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ (from Psalms 19 and 137)
So Persians / Babylonians were probably second only to Romans in not-very-welcome guests.
The wise men being Persians also gives us a big clue to ‘Magi’. It’s a Latin word from which we get ‘magic’. But before that it came from the Persian word magus, a priest of their Zoroastrian religion. The same word is used in Acts 8:9-24 for Simon the sorcerer who tried to buy miraculous power.
So the Magi were Zoroastrian priests or sorcerers, and believed in the pseudo-science of astrology**. Hmmmn. Wouldn’t some nice Jewish rabbis have been a better choice? Men learned in the Hebrew scriptures, rather than a bunch of heathen sorcerers? Or kings. Kings are respectable. Can’t they be kings instead, please?
The ‘kings’ bit comes from the Isaiah reading being conflated with the Matthew one. Bringing gifts from distant lands and so on, kings coming to the brightness of his rising. (That ‘rising’ is the same word as the star which the wise men saw at its ‘rising’ = in the East). You can see how it happened.
Somewhere along the line, the sorcerers / astrologers / priests-from-a-different-religion got sanitised into kings, then someone wrote We Three Kings of Orient Are (one in a taxi, one in a car, one on a scooter, beeping his hooter, following yonder star) and Sainsbury’s have sold ‘wise man’ costumes with crowns ever since.
See ya later, alligator
And there’s another problem. Despite every nativity play, the six Christmas assemblies I recently gave, and a hundred bazillion Christmas cards, the wise men weren’t there for Jesus’ birth. Really, they weren’t.
And it wasn’t twelve days later, from Christmas to Epiphany (Mary would have been busy dealing with all the partridges and pear trees anyway). Herod’s dreadful plan to get rid of boys up to two years old, rather than just the new-borns, tells us that that Jesus was a toddler by the time the wise men turned up.
Just a little bit late, then.
But I don’t care! I have wise men in my crib on the mantle piece. I don’t care that they arrived two years too late. I don’t care that they didn’t have the right ‘nice’ background. I don’t care that they brought ridiculous gifts. (Seriously, who brings myrrh? Where were the nappies? Where was the chocolate?)
They were the wrong people. They came at wrong time. They brought the wrong gifts.
And you know what? It’s OK.
I am the wrong person, too. I am not who God wants me to be. I get grumpy with my kids. I am impatient and unsympathetic to other people’s problems. I am rubbish at listening and think I am always right. ‘Love is patient, love is kind …’ Nothing like me then! I really am not a good example of what a Christian should be.
And talk about missing the event. The wise men got there eventually, but I could not count the number of times I have missed church – not because I was not there in body, but because I was not there in mind. I sit through a service distracted by all the stuff I have to do, and suddenly it’s communion and I’ve mumbled my way here with my mind on whether I need to buy bread and milk on the way home. Or even Christmas itself – I run headlong through Advent and trip over Christmas Day without having thought further than “What time is the choir rehearsal?” Then suddenly I’ve missed the event that we were rehearsing for.
And look at my gifts! At least the frankincense might have masked the smell of wet nappies, but since when was the ability to solve quadratic equations a useful gift in the Kingdom of God?
I’m not the right person. I’m not where I should be. I bring really useless gifts.
But God looks at my imperfections (easy enough to spot), and says, “It’s OK, I knew about these anyway, and it’s good that you know you need me.” He looks at my busyness and distractions and says, “I’m glad you’re here. Sit down and rest a while.” He looks at my woeful array of useless gifts and says, “You know what? I can really use these. They’re great. Thanks.”
*In case you’re wondering, magi is plural. The singular in Latin is magus, or in English mage.
**Despite that, the Babylonians and Persians were brilliant mathematicians and scientists and we still use their number system for measuring time and angles. Ever wondered why there are 90 degrees in a right angle and 24 hours in a day? Thank the Babylonians. Also, they could solve quadratic equations – neat!
Isaiah 60:1-6 New Century Version
“Jerusalem, get up and shine, because your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord shines on you.
Darkness now covers the earth;
deep darkness covers her people.
But the Lord shines on you,
and people see his glory around you.
Nations will come to your light;
kings will come to the brightness of your sunrise.
“Look around you.
People are gathering and coming to you.
Your sons are coming from far away,
and your daughters are coming with them.
When you see them, you will shine with happiness;
you will be excited and full of joy,
because the wealth of the nations across the seas will be given to you;
the riches of the nations will come to you.
Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels from Midian and Ephah.
People will come from Sheba
bringing gold and incense,
and they will sing praises to the Lord.
Matthew 2:1-12 New Century Version
Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea during the time when Herod was king. When Jesus was born, some wise men from the east came to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the baby who was born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, as were all the people in Jerusalem. Herod called a meeting of all the leading priests and teachers of the law and asked them where the Christ would be born. They answered, “In the town of Bethlehem in Judea. The prophet wrote about this in the Scriptures:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are not just an insignificant village in Judah.
A ruler will come from you
who will be like a shepherd for my people Israel.’” Micah 5:2
Then Herod had a secret meeting with the wise men and learned from them the exact time they first saw the star. He sent the wise men to Bethlehem, saying, “Look carefully for the child. When you find him, come tell me so I can worship him too.”
After the wise men heard the king, they left. The star that they had seen in the east went before them until it stopped above the place where the child was. When the wise men saw the star, they were filled with joy. They came to the house where the child was and saw him with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their gifts and gave him treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But God warned the wise men in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned to their own country by a different way.
New Century Version
The Holy Bible, New Century Version®. Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Re-posted from 2018
Photo from Kuhan Satkunanayagam, Epiphany at St Mary’s, Long Ditton’s