The Journey of the Magi
- 2 January 2022
- Jeff Ware
Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
We have before us this morning a story that will be very familiar to most of us, one of the many stories that is part and parcel of our culture and that fills our heads and hearts (especially around this time of year), and a story that has given rise to numerous interesting, creative and sometimes fanciful explanations. A familiar story, various interpretations, and the challenge before us is this: ‘How can we, individually and corporately, make this story work for us, make it sing?
Matthew is alone amongst the Gospel writers in recording this story – and I don’t think we’ve got any idea how he came upon it. Be that as it may, here we go:
Magi, having seen in the night sky, indications of a royal birth, make their way to Bethlehem, locate the child and offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh. Jesus has been born, visited and hailed as ‘King of the Jews’ by these foreigners. Meanwhile, lurking in the background, King Herod is on edge, disturbed, and takes threats to eliminate any threat to his own position.
There we have the bare bones of this familiar story.
It is a story that has been expanded upon and set to music of course:
‘We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star. Oh, Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading…..’
And as we sing, we take on the persona of one king and then another…
‘Gold I bring to crown him again’
‘Myrhh is mine its bitter perfume/ Breaths a life of gathering gloom.’
Now, for the record, the magi were not kings, they were part of the ruling elite, most likely consultants in the Parthian empire to the east, Parthia, Persia, modern day Iran/Iraq.
Religious scholars? Yes. Astronomers? Yes. Astrologers? Yes. They looked to the skies and saw significance in certain configurations of stars and planets, and in this instance figured it had something to do with Jewish royalty, and were sent on their way to pay homage. Something like that. Representatives of Parhia? Yes. ‘We three kings’? Not really.
But a bit of poetic license here and there, like in another classic hymn, ‘As with gladness’, which encourages us to imitate these ‘men of old’, and worship, not Jesus the child, but Christ the heavenly king:
‘As with joyful steps they sped/ Saviour to your lowly bed,/there to bend the knee before/one whom heaven and earth adore:/so may we with willing feet/ever seek your mercy seat.’
As I said, there are many creative interpretations and applications of this story, attempts to make it come alive and fill it with meaning. And so:
Though we don’t know, we’re not told, how many magi there were, people have imagined three, since there were three categories of gift. But there could have been 6 or 9 or 12 or…
And, since we don’t know their names, let’s call them, for the purpose of telling a good story: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar (and let’s name a fourth, Artaban, who has gifts, but uses it to support people in need).
And, let them represent Asia, Africa and Europe – all the nations gathering around this child. Or, the three ages: youth, adulthood and maturity – this child is for all.
And, let the three-fold gifts foretell the career of this Prophet-Priest- King before them.
And, lets give them camels, and make it a twelve day camel led journey (so we have twelve days for Christmastide, concluding with this story and the Feast of Epiphany, January 6, when we can take our Christmas trees down.)
And, let’s make them women, as I saw on a postcard not so long ago, since this story needs more gender balance – three wise women.
And so the story has been wonderfully embroidered and embellished over the years. To add colour to its retelling. To assist interpreting it and applying it and making it sing for different people in different contexts.
For mine, T S Eliot’s rendering of the story in that great poem: The Journey of the Magi, invariably comes to mind. Maybe all those years when Year 12 English students had ‘Journeys’ as their HSC theme: Physical Journeys, Journeys of Discovery, and so on.
Eliot also takes considerable poetic license and uses his sacred imagination to expand upon the difficulties of the journey:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
But it is not just the difficulty of the journey, it is the transformation that occurred as a result of the journey that Eliot renders so evocatively (and ‘transformation’ is a key word for us, in our SHAP community):
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
no longer at ease here, in this old dispensation.
But it’s time to return to our texts, and then to ask, not how T S Eliot or anyone else will read it, but how we will read it, but how we will read it.
Matthew seems to highlight two things.
Firstly, that Jesus is indeed a ‘king’, of sorts. Not like Herod, that client-king of the Romans, whose rule of violence – triggered perhaps by his insecurity and paranoia) inspires fear. But another sort of king, one whose strength is in weakness and vulnerability, one who draws out the gifts of the unlikeliest of people, one whose rule we will see, as we read on, is marked by humility, compassion and grace, one who inspires trust and generosity.
That’s the first thing Matthew highlights, and the second is that Jesus has come, not just for the Jews, but for one and all!
That’s what the apostle Paul was waxing eloquent about in our second reading: ‘that non-Jews/Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one inclusive body. (Ephesians 3)
By the way, an interesting aspect of Matthew’s Gospel is the way in which these magi right at the start of the Gospel come to Jesus, representatives, I think of the nations coming to him as in Isaiah’s vision of the nations rendering tribute to Jerusalem, the ‘riches of the nations being drawn to Israel’ (Isaiah 60).
And, then, at the end of the Gospel, the followers of Jesus are to ‘Go’, to ‘Go’ and make disciples of people from here there and everywhere, from all the nations. (Matthew 28)
So, Matthew does these two things.
A king has been born. A certain sort of ‘king’, one who stands in contrast to the Herods of the world. (A contrast that, by the way, tinges the story with dark overtones, with a sense of danger).
And, this king is for all. Not just a king for the Jews, but a ‘King of the Jews’ who is for one and for all.
A familiar story, that gives rise to may creative, sometimes profound, sometimes playful/fanciful re-imaginings (and we haven’t even begun to look at the art that it has inspired! That could be homework for us all.)
And now, it’s your turn and mine, to use our sacred imaginations and to think about what this story might spark for us, how it might connect with our lives, come to life for us and in us.
And, of course, we won’t all connect with it in the same way.
Just as there are many ways to connect with the Christian faith, many ways to connect with God, so there will be many ways to connect with this portion of Scripture.
I’ve had so much fun thinking about this.
For me, and please let me know how it may work for/speak to you, for me, like the magi, I find myself drawn out of my settled word of some three decades, living and working at the same place, a settled world and a settled way of doing things, but now called to something fresh and new (maybe that’s us as a parish too?)
And also, for me, at this particular time, and being the person I am, I’m liking the language of ‘journey’.
And, as much as I’m interested in the journey of the magi, and imagining as best I can, what motivated and moved them, and what the journey meant for them, I find myself every bit as interested in hearing the journey that each of you has made, in relation to Jesus, and I want to become as familiar with and delighted by those stories as I am by this one of the magi.
I want to listen. For me this is a time of listening, a season, a year of listening and hearing your story. What was it that brought you to Jesus? What does following him mean to you? What gifts does he draw from your life? What joy? Maybe it has been a struggle and I’ll hear: ‘a hard time I’ve had of it.’ Something like that. Okay. There are many ways to live a Christian life.
I’m interested. Intrigued. And I want to hear your journey.
And, I want to be part of a community where it is safe to talk openly and honestly about our respective Christian journeys, those that have barely started, those which are hesitant and unsure, those which have drifted for one good reason or another, those which are steady and settled and established.
May we be of encouragement and help to one another in the year ahead, as we journey together and accompany and support one another in this way.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.