After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
The 12th day of Christmas falls on 6 January this year. In the Christian calendar the day is known as Epiphany, marking the visit to the young Jesus by… well, by whom?
We sometimes sing ‘We three kings of Orient are’. But Matthew calls them ‘Magi’, not kings. Magi were a number of things, but they were certainly not kings. Nor, probably, should we think of them as ‘wise men’.
By the first century, the term ‘Magi’ referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. So, think ‘magicians’. Think horoscope fanatics. Think those who claim to tell the future by reading stars, tea leaves, and chicken gizzards. In the Bible, think of the magicians in Egypt at the time of Moses, or the interpreters of dreams in the book of Daniel, or Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8.
So, for an early reader of Matthew’s gospel, the Magi aren’t just Gentiles (significant though that is); they represent the height of Gentile idolatry and religious wizardry. But it’s these star-gazing, horoscope-writing, would-be magicians who are the heroes in the story. They shouldn’t be there. They don’t worship the right God or adhere to the right religion or belong to the right race. And yet they are there.
It’s possible, then (according to Mark Allan Powell, Chasing the Eastern Star, Westminster John Knox, 2001) that we should see the Magi as bungling astrologers or sorcerers – more like the Three Stooges than the Three Wise Men! They go to the wrong place. They speak to the wrong person. When they give their gifts, it’s gold, frankincense and myrrh, which were elements used in their magic. And yet, by a mysterious combination of God’s loving grace and their faithful seeking, they are there – as models of seeking Jesus, believing in Jesus, and worshipping Jesus with what they have. God used what they knew – the stars – and gave them what they didn’t know – the Scriptures – to bring them to Jesus.
The story of the Magi shows us that God revealed the truth about Jesus to a bunch of pagan fools while those who were clever enough to work it out for themselves missed out. Their story reminds us that God shows his strength in our weakness, his glory in our humility, his wisdom in our folly – to make it clear that everything comes from him and not from ourselves.
Let’s celebrate that this New Year.