Monday 2 January 2017

Of Astrologers, Magicians, and Bungling Sorcerers

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. This is a lightly-edited re-run of a piece first written and published back in 2010.

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.’
Matthew 2:1-2

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.


Unknown said...

For what it's worth this Christmas, I've been contemplating how Jesus rejected each of these 'signpost' gifts as he lived out his earthly life. He'd almost rejected the gold - for kingship - by the time it was given. He certainly flagged up serious warnings about earthly wealth as he taught and lived, and his kingdom was 'not of this earth' when he encountered Pilate. Frankincense - for priesthood - was used as a means by which imperfect offerings were made acceptable to God by the priests. He fought with the priests of the day throughout his ministry, rejecting their teachings and mechanistic legalism. He made himself to be "the way" rather than any ritual priestly activities. And Myrrh - for the preservation of corpse - well, he rendered that completely redundant. His glorious resurrection threw the need for myrrh into oblivion once, for all, for ever.

Antony said...

Thanks for your reflections, James – much appreciated.