The Magi

A Homily given at St. Hilda’s Anglican Church in Sechelt on Jan 3, 2021.

Epiphany is what we call an experience of sudden understanding. I say I had an epiphany when in a flash I comprehend a thing that I previously did not. In the Christian tradition, we celebrate this with its own season. We celebrate the understanding of God we have found in Jesus.[1]

It speaks of how God has come to us to make God’s self known to us. The mystics regularly wonder at the unspeakable God becoming known. In Eastern Christianity Epiphany was associated with Christ’s baptism. This makes sense as it was in the baptism of Jesus that Jesus became a public figure. He was made known through this ritual act. The baptism of Jesus was an epiphany to the human race.

In western Christianity, Epiphany was associated with the coming of the Magi. The Magi represented the knowledge of God coming to the Gentiles. They were the first Gentiles to know God in Jesus – hence they represent an epiphany to the Gentiles.

The Magi are very popular characters at Christmas time. They are regularly found populating nativity scenes small and big. Indeed, no nativity is complete without them. They are almost as popular as Rudolf and Santa in the Christmas music we hear every year.

In the 3rd century they were understood to be kings from the east.[2] Perhaps this comes from Psalm 72, which has Gentile kings offering gift and homage to “the king’s son,” which was thought to be a reference to the Messiah.[3]

We see this reflected in the Christmas carol: “We three Kings of Orient are; Bearing gifts we traverse afar.” Tradition has given these kings names, Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar (or Casper). Balthasar is sometime thought to be a king of Arabia or perhaps Ethiopia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.[4]

This popular image of the Magi is not without its problems. One obvious one is that these characters do not have names in Matthew. Furthermore, there is no indication as to how many of them there were. Was there three? Perhaps. Maybe there were five, six? Who knows? Matthew is not interested in this detail enough to mention anything about it. Three makes sense, I guess, seeing as there were three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – having three people makes sense. But the text doesn’t say.

A second problem – one that is more interesting – pertains to the status of these figures. The word used by Matthew μάγος does not mean king. While I love the carols that celebrate three kings, Matthew is not telling us about three kings. There is simply no way that μάγος means king.

In the NRSV the word is translated as “wise men.” They are understood to be sages from the east. This is nice and has a lengthy tradition behind it. However, if we look closely at the story, these figures do not act particularly wise. They are quite stupid, when it comes right down to it. They wander into the capital city of a foreign land and ask about one who is to be born king in the earshot of one who is king. They are just asking for trouble – and trouble they find with the murder of the innocence narrated in the final verses of Matthew chapter 2. If they were really wise, they should have known that speaking about rival kings was a foolish thing to do. However, and more importantly, the word magos does not means wise men. [5]

We might wonder why the word was translated as King or as Wise men – and I suggest that perhaps this is because these are safer options. They do not risk people being bothered by what the word really means. The word really should be translated as astrologers. These were magicians, sorcerers – practitioners of ancient Eastern spiritualities; they did not follow the ways of the Lord as prescribed in the Torah. They were idolaters and “pagans.”

Ancient Judaism universally condemned these sorts of spiritualities. There was no place for this sort of thing if you wanted to be a faithful follower of the God of Israel. Christianity took up this contempt and also vehemently rejected anything that smacked of sorcery or magic –including astrology.

When Matthew wrote his Gospel, it is likely that the original readers would have rejected astrology and sorcery as idolatrous. It was of the devil, they probably would have thought, and hence to be utterly rejected.

So, we have several men from the east who are sorcerers and astrologers and who through their sorcery and astrology find the one who is to be born the king of the Jews. They do not find this infant king through consulted the ancient Jewish sacred texts, as we would think. They do not find the coming king by learning from the traditions of the people of God. No, they find their way through a foreign and rejected practice of sorcery.

Matthew is trying to be provocative. He is trying to get a rise from his audience. Again, Matthew’s original audience would have probably shared the distain for astrology that most Jews felt at the time, and yet Matthew includes this story anyways. It is as if he is intentionally trying to aggravate his own readers.

After reading his Gospel, I can imagine someone in the audience saying to Matthew, “Matthew I love your story, but you have to take that bit about the sorcerers out of it. People are going to get all the wrong ideas. They are going to begin thinking that things like sorcery and astrology are okay. Is that really the message you are want to send?

I imagine Matthew responding, “If you aren’t at least a little bothered by that part of the story, then I suggest that perhaps you are missing the point. You should be bothered. God is a great God of comfort, but he is also a God that delights in bothering those who think they have it all figured out. He (I don’t say “she” because I don’t think Matthew would speak in those terms) enjoys rocking the boat of those who hold tightly onto rigid moralities, and who like feeling superior because they know the correct way to be spiritual.”

I am not suggesting that we all go out and buy a book on astrology, but I am saying that God is found where God is found. Period. God is not put in a box, and any God that is in a box is not a God worth considering. If God wants to be found in some odd ancient mysticism, or in some obscure philosophy, who are we to say otherwise?

This might offer us some guidance as we think about other world religions. As we all know, there are some Christians who suggest God is not really found in other religions outside of Christianity. We have in this morning’s Gospel a clear example of God being found through sorcery – so how can we say that God is not found in ancient religious practises, other than our own?

We find God in Jesus, as did the Magi of old, but who is to say that God cannot be found anywhere where God chooses to be found?  

The story of Jesus starts by making its audience uncomfortable. It provokes them to argue with the story – to say, “No! that can’t be right – that can’t be how these gentiles found God!” It might even make them angry.

Do we ever decide whether something is worthy to be accepted as coming from God by asking how comfortable it makes us? Truly God is a God of comfort, but God is also a God that wants to kick up the dirt, overturn the tables, and turn the world upside down. These sorts of things rarely happen though comfort.

We will never kick up the dirt of sin, overturn the table of white privilege, and turn the world upside down towards a radical egalitarianism by playing it safe and comfortable. God is calling us into a movement – we could even say he is calling us to a revolution. This is not comforting. But the lives of so many in our world are painful and uncomfortable – there can be no final comfort until there is comfort for all.

[1] Epiphany is a time when we reflect on how God is discovered within the Christian tradition. The word come from the Greek word ἐπιφανής, which speaks of a “resplendent” light “whose impact is especially striking in its sudden appearance.”[1]


[3] Ps 72: 10-11   Let kings of Tarshish and the islands pay tribute,  kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. Let all kings bow to him …


[5] They are told to go to Bethlehem by the chief priest and scribes in Jerusalem, and leaving the city, they find that they did not learn anything from the religious leaders in Jerusalem that the star they were already following would not have eventually shown them anyways. They find out that they did not need to ask in Jerusalem – the star that they followed was sufficient. But they wanted more. Not very wise…

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