Saturday, December 17, 2011

Magicians and Kings

Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the Child Who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed His star at its rising, and have come to pay Him homage.” (Matthew 2.1-2)


It’s rarely mentioned that the Christ Child’s most illustrious visitors are revered practitioners of occult arts. Bible translators take pains to divorce the star-brought Easterners from their profession, calling them “wise men,” or loosely transliterating Matthew’s word (magoi) as “Magi.” We associate them with storybook images of lavishly robed men presenting treasure to Baby Jesus. But in Matthew’s day, the Magi are legendary disciples of Zoroaster, the Persian seer credited with inventing astrology and composing two epic poems that depict humanity’s struggle to discern truth and lies. The Magi’s quest for truth and reputation for reading the skies lend credence to Matthew’s assertion a star brings them to Jesus's crib. What goes unnoted in his Gospel, however, is first-century readers’ assumption their gifts to divine astral augurs also equip them to alter fates foretold in the stars. In short, they’re wizards at rewriting history.

The Magi’s appearance in Matthew raises eyebrows, since he shapes his Gospel for notoriously xenophobic Jewish readers, whose sacred texts explicitly warn against consulting with astrologers and sorcerers. Thus, it’s likely that Matthew’s intended readership reacts very differently to the Magi than we do. What we find enchanting—the star, fancy costumes, gold, and exotic spices—is worrisome to them. Foreign magicians have no place in their Messiah narrative. Sure, the prophets tell of Gentile kings bowing before Israel’s King with offerings of gold and incense. But Matthew sends in kings’ men—well-paid staff astrologers who answer their king’s beck and call, even accompanying him in battle, where they monitor heavenly signs and wield magical powers that turn the tide in his favor.


At risk of alienating literal-minded readers, Matthew bends Jewish prophecy in hopes that more insightful ones will perceive the Nativity’s magnitude. The Magi’s presence in Bethlehem confirms Jesus’s birth as a Messianic event that signals the end of religious labels and exclusion—in other words, a New Order aligned with God’s intention that Jesus be the Savior of the world. While Luke stresses the universal significance of Jesus’s birth by setting it in a barn and delegating His worship to country bumpkins, Matthew ignores all of that to sock his readers with a staggering blow. The Magi are everything they loathe and fear—strangers, pagans, and sorcerers! They’re filthier than the filthiest stable. Yet they alone display courage to seek Christ. Which brings us to Matthew’s most radical point.

The Magi’s purported ability to change history invests Matthew’s scenario with a revolutionary concept: human agency. Prior to this, Israel’s hope for a Deliverer reflects the same passive position it takes in relationship to God. It watches and waits. God speaks and works. But the Magi see a star and, ascertaining its importance, they move without delay. Of the Nativity’s players, only they act without angelic directive. In a sense, they intrude on the story by making it their business to find Jesus. That’s not to say their involvement isn’t by divine providence, however. After inadvertently endangering Jesus’s life when they ask King Herod where they can find the King of the Jews, they do precisely what they’re known for: circumvent history. A dream alerts them that Herod plans to murder Jesus, and to ensure His safety, they defy the King’s request that they inform him where the Child is. They bypass Jerusalem, returning home another way. Matthew’s omission of any instructions in the dream makes clear they leave like they came—of their own volition. Acting solely on their agency, they bring something altogether new and dangerous to the Messianic equation. Matthew tells his readers salvation is a joint venture with God requiring our courage and active commitment.


Ironically, it appears Matthew is rewriting history to include the Magi and Herod in his account. Historians find no evidence of the infant massacre that he claims directly resulted from the magicians’ disregard for the king’s wishes. Since the brutality of Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus by slaughtering every male baby in Bethlehem couldn’t escape notice, no existing record of it calls Matthew’s veracity into question. Yet supposing his Magi subplot is bald fiction, his integrity remains intact, because he leads us to contrast magicians with kings. Magicians act without asking. Kings ask before they act. Kings just so happen to make history. Magicians change history so what’s just happens. Magicians seek truth. Kings spread deceit. Matthew asks which we will emulate. Will we actively pursue the opportunity to seek and worship Christ? Or will we passively sit by, expecting to benefit from others who do?

Whether or not Matthew’s account is factual, placing people who don’t belong at Jesus’s crib makes it true. He eliminates any visitors other than the Magi simply to dramatize God’s infinite love and acceptance for those who come to Christ of their own volition. That’s the crux of Matthew’s story: faith is a willing act, not a command performance. “We observed His star at its rising, and have come to pay Him homage,” the Magi confess. (Matthew 2.2) The Gospel goes on to say, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” (v3) The very ones who should rejoice to hear their Messiah is born are terrified—and with good cause. They’re awaiting a ruler who divides and conquers, not one who wins the adoration of strangers, pagans, and wizards.


On the strength of a new star, the Magi foresee a New Order that unites the world in harmony and peace. That’s a dangerous prospect for kings, nations, and people who leverage exclusion, labeling, and the hatred they spawn to nullify the legitimacy of anyone they choose. On the strength of a new star—and the fiber to act on what they see—the Magi take back the right to choose. They voluntarily leave palaces where they’re respected and venture into a lowly place where they clearly don’t belong. Their courage illuminates our understanding that not belonging is why they belong.

As we enter Advent’s final days, may we shed any remnants of kingly traits—all hesitance and fear—to embrace the Magi's mindset. May we fix our eyes on the star we’ve seen and exercise our right to discover where it leads. May we ask dangerous questions and take bold risks that alter history. And when our quest ends with paying homage to the Newborn King, may our awareness that many think we don’t belong there secure our conviction we’re exactly where we belong.

Blessed Redeemer, our Deliverer, we’ve seen Your star and willingly followed it without reservation. Equip us with courage to finish this journey. Bring us safely to Your sacred birthplace, where not belonging is why we belong. Amen.

While it would seem Jesus’s birthplace is nowhere for sorcerers, the Magi prove the opposite by actively seeking and worshipping Him. (James Tissot: The Journey of the Magi; 1894)

Postscript: “We Three Kings”

The famous carol gets it wrong; the Magi aren’t kings (and Matthew doesn't limit them to three). Yet it also gets this right: “King forever, ceasing never over us all to reign…”

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