The story of the “wise men from the East” has embedded itself firmly in our Christmas practices. On the church calendar, their story is the centerpiece of Jan. 6, the day we call “Epiphany,” which marks the end of the Christmas season.
Like a lot of churches, we make a big deal out of the story on the nearest Sunday to Jan. 6. We add three crowned characters to our nativity scenes, often accompanied by camels. We sing “We Three Kings.” We read the story found in Matthew.
And yet, I’m not sure we fully grasp the identity of these visitors, which means we may also miss the significance of their trip.
Matthew is very sparing in his details about these travelers. In Greek, he simply refers to them as magi, as if he expects the audience of his day to know exactly what that meant. And his audience did know, the way we know people’s roles if we call them engineers, doctors, politicians, or whatever.
Our problem arises because at some point in history, what it meant to be a magi was largely lost on much of western culture, resulting in English translations using words like “kings” or “wise men.” The former is largely inaccurate, despite the popular hymn; the latter is accurate but so general that we gain little in terms of understanding.
Fortunately, researchers in the last couple of centuries have developed a better understanding of these travelers’ background. (Note: nowhere in the Bible does it say there were exactly three of them. That tradition developed because there were three gifts for Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh.) One hint lies in the fact that magi did make it into the English language in words like “magic” and “magician.”
It helps if we understand the religious practices of the lands east of Israel in Jesus’ day, places we now think of as dominated by Islam—modern-day Iran and Iraq, for example. We have to remember, Islam did not exist until about 600 years after Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. One of the dominant pre-Muslim religions in the area was Zoroastrianism.
The beliefs of the followers of Zoroaster (sometimes called “Zarathustra”) are too complicated to cover here; suffice it to say they have a belief in one eternal creator god called Ahura Mazda, and they affirm that individuals freely choose whether to align themselves with what is good and right through constructive words, thoughts and deeds. (Yes, some Zoroastrians remain today.) From their earliest days, they also acted as a sort of pre-industrial environmental movement, believing they served not only the creator but also seven aspects of creation: sky, water, earth, plants, animals, man and fire.
Historically, the Zoroastrian priests were known as—you guessed it—magi, and they practiced all sorts of activities the Jews and even the Romans would have considered the province of pagans: astrology, divination, and other activities considered to be magic. Often, the magi used these practices to advise kings in their areas of influence.
I realize the term “pagan” is considered pejorative today; I’m simply trying to capture the feeling people around Jesus would have had regarding these men. It is revealing that Matthew chose to incorporate the story of the magi’s astrological discovery of Jesus and their visit into the Christ’s birth narrative. Politically, it only could have hurt the early Christians to have their savior associated with such people. In the book of Acts, the works of similar magi are presented negatively, as a force working against God.
Matthew was making a larger point, however. The birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of the dreams of the world, not just the dreams of the Jewish people. Through Jesus, God was speaking to all people in a way they could understand. Matthew also is demonstrating the Jewish leaders should have known him as the fulfillment of their desire for a messiah; even far-away “pagans” were able to use what the Jews would consider forbidden practices to spot Christ’s arrival.
We live in a culture today where many people seem to find themselves where the magi were. There is a goodness about them and a fascination with all things spiritual, to the point that interest in astrology and magic are on the upswing among generations where church attendance is in decline. I also have observed only half jokingly that environmentalism, as useful and wise as it can be when rooted in solid science and sound economic theory, seems for some people to function like a new religion, with recycling as its sacrament.
If the magi in the book of Matthew are any indication, at least people who practice such things may be open to hearing the story of God among us in a manger, the same sacrificial God who took on flesh and died for our sins, the God whose Holy Spirit resides among us now.
They will need a shining light to guide them. Christian, you may be that light as you gently connect their desire for goodness with God’s great plan of redemption.