Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Message from the Magi

Adoration of the Magi
On the twelfth day of Christmas, some men arrived to see, a baby on his mother’s knee. 

While we know very little about these men, they are compelling characters that have captured the Christian imagination. The men appear only in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2. 1-12).  

Matthew tells us that the men, who came from the East, followed a star until they found the Christ child. Along the way, they checked in at King Herod’s palace. After consultation with some experts in Jewish messianic prophecy, they carried on their way. When they found Jesus, they worshiped him, and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Disobeying Herod’s command to return to the palace, they took an alternate route home because they dreamed that Herod intended to kill the child.

The men become legend
From Matthew’s account, the men became the stuff of legend. As early as the 2nd century, the men were a trio. By the 3rd century, the trio had become a popular subject of art. By the 5th century, the magi had become kings, and, in the west, had acquired the names, Balthassar, Melchior, and Gaspar.  In the east, they were Melkon, King of Persia, Gaspar, King of India, and Baldassar, King of Arabia.

Zoroastrian priests?
Over the centuries, the men have been called “kings”, “wise men”, “sages”, and “magi”. The word that Matthew originally used was “magos.”  Magos is a specific term that refers to a Zoroastrian priest.

Zoroastrianism is the oldest monotheistic religion in the world, possibly dating to about 1800 BCE.  It was the religion of three ancient Iranian empires, including that of King Cyrus, who is mentioned favorably in the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophet Isaiah calls him “God’s anointed one”.  Cyrus liberated the exiled Jews from Babylonian captivity, and rebuilt the Jewish temple. 

Interfaith dialogue
An overlap of religious ideas between Zoroastrianism and the Judeo-Christian tradition strongly suggests that 500 years before the birth of Jesus, Jews and Zoroastrians were engaged in interfaith dialogue. By the time Jesus was born in the 1st century, Zoroastrian communities were a strong, and influential presence throughout the Middle East.  It is possible that Matthew’s magos were indeed Zoroastrian priests, were familiar with the Jewish messianic scriptures, and were looking for the messiah.

The magi as examples of conversion, perseverance, and trust 
Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi to the child Jesus lends itself to numerous spiritual interpretations.  Justin Martyr, writing in the 2nd century, saw the magi as examples of conversion, and the renunciation of pagan ways. Origen, another one of the Church Fathers, said the magi were the first individuals to recognize Jesus as the messiah, and were witnesses to Christianity.  Pope Leo the Great, writing in the 5th century, compared the journey of the magi to a spiritual journey. The star was the light of faith leading the individual to truth. In his eloquent words, “the star attracted their eyes, but the rays of truth also penetrated their hearts.”

Over the years, homilists have added to these interpretations. Some see the magi as examples of perseverance in faith. For others, the magi demonstrate that the servants of God are sometimes found outside of established religious organizations; attending church does not guarantee that a person is serving or honoring God well.

As a compelling example of tolerance
I think that the magi bear today’s world another important message. The magi sought, encountered, and accepted God’s revelation outside of their own religious system, and cultural experience. The unfamiliar did not threaten them; it presented them with an opportunity to discover God in a new way, and to grow spiritually.

Matthew’s magi represent the principles of dialogue, tolerance, and acceptance.  These are principles that improve our personal relationships. These are principles that bring greater harmony to the world, and are especially needed in the Middle East, the region where the magi travelled, and where the Christ, the prince of peace, was born.

My reading of Matthew’s account is not in keeping with the purposes of his infancy narratives.  In his stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew wants to show that Jesus fulfills the Jewish messianic prophecies, that his birth is universally important, and that he has authority over men.

As part of the living word of God, the magi reach across time, continuing to speak with relevance to the present generation. Their generous spirit of openness and acceptance is a compelling example for all people of goodwill. In a world plagued with various forms of intolerance, the magi are symbols of those noble principles that foster harmonious relationships among individuals and nations.

Adoration of the Magi,

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