This Sunday marks the Feast of the Epiphany on the Christian liturgical calendar, also known as the commemoration of the day on which Jesus was first beheld by the world. As the traditional interpretation of the Bible story goes, King Herod was frightened by rumors of a new king’s birth, so he sent the “three wise men” (also known as the “three kings of Orient”– hence the popular Christmas song “We Three Kings”) to bring Jesus to him from Bethlehem. Herod said he wanted to “pay homage” to Jesus, but I think the reader is expected to glean that he likely had foul play in mind. (Matthew 2:1-12)
Tradition holds that the wise men “followed a star” to Bethlehem until it stopped over the baby Jesus’ manger. They presented gifts to him and peacefully went about their way without carrying out any of Herod’s instructions. Their trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is now understood as a holy pilgrimage, as well as a testament to the miraculous nature of this specific child. The Feast of the Epiphany (or perhaps more appropriately titled “the Feast of the Theophany”) is for many Christians a celebration of the formerly unseen God’s appearance to humankind.
It’s a beautiful narrative when told in its traditional fashion– but like most of the Bible’s stories, the tale of the “three wise men” has lost (and even gained) a few things in translation. For instance, the gospels don’t actually record the number of men sent from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. We assume there were three because three gifts were left for Jesus, but the number of visitors remains unknown. And the men were not “kings”… We assume they were kings because we’ve melded together Matthew’s account of their journey with Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 72:10 and Psalm 68:29– verses of scripture that most Christians interpret as prophecies that the messiah would be worshiped by kings. We’ve even given three names to the men, names that do not appear in the text.
The details of the journey are mostly a mystery, but we do know this: Those who traveled to see Jesus were known as “magi,”– or socerers… astrologers… Their countries of origin and religions are unknown, but many suspect they were Zoroastrians from somewhere other than Jerusalem. Some have said that the “star” they followed was an astrological sign, and that they were far more interested in discerning the seasons than they were in discerning Jewish prophecy.
The story clearly records that the men paid their respects to Jesus and his family, gave gifts, and left with no record of becoming devotees, converts or followers. They remained what most of us would now consider the religious “other,” as they certainly engaged in practices that most would call earth-centered, astrologically-based (and therefore presumed prohibited by scripture), or “pagan”. Despite all of this, scripture calls the men “wise,” not foolish– and not wise because they met the baby Jesus, but wise because of what they knew prior to meeting him.
Today, as I consider the important role played by the otherly or “pagan” sojourners in this story, I am inclined to wonder if we’ve missed something truly wonderful in the way Jesus’ life began. Could it be that this same Jesus who elevated the status of women, touched those deemed unclean by Jewish authorities, and challenged the political status quo could also be a symbol of an unlikely merger– the merger of “forbidden” mystical or spiritual practices with those accepted by a society’s established religious community? Is there an alternative message in the story of the magi’s pilgrimage– perhaps a story of men whose connection to the Divine led them to cross paths with “incarnation” in their own way? Could it be that the magi were entrusted to uncover a world-changing embodiment of mysticism, justice and peace that could bring people together, and that this discovery was truly meant to remain free from the dogmatic assumptions that could prevent it from achieving the universal appreciation it deserves?
In my blog post titled “Christmas and Jesus: A Renewed Perspective,” I wrote that in my opinion, the story of the incarnation is not as much about a mystery that only Jesus could uniquely embody as it is about a mystery that you and I are invited to embrace every day. I think Jesus was a mystic, and that many of my pagan friends are mystics in a way that is beautiful and important. I believe Christians should think more about the universal themes in scripture, beginning with the story of the magi– and I think doing so will help us to be a more peaceful force in our pluralistic world.
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