2nd SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS — 3 January 2010
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant — 10:00
Jer 31:7-14 Ps 84 Eph 1:3-6,15-19a Matt 2:1-12
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.”
This story is a very familiar one. It’s not clear to what extent this is actual history, and to what extent it is theological legend; but that’s another issue for another time. (I keep meaning to write a paper about it, and I keep not doing it. Oh well.) Perhaps this story is a little too familiar to us: we know this story better than the Bible itself does! Tradition has filled in a lot of details that just aren’t there in the text. In the first place, the visitors weren’t kings. (We knew that.) That’s a bit of lore that first shows up in the second century, undoubtedly reflecting the fact that this story reminded the early Christians of Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, which talk about foreign kings coming to Jerusalem to worship God. (That’s where the camels come in, too — not in Matthew, who doesn’t mention camels.) Nor does the Gospel text say that there were three of these sage visitors; that’s an inference from the three sorts of gifts that are mentioned, and it first shows up explicitly in the tradition only in the fifth century. Nor are the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, traditionally given to the wise men, apparently any earlier than the eighth century. And the depiction of Caspar as a Moor is only 14th century — practically yesterday!
Well, then, who were these wise men? The Gospel calls them Magi from the East. The “Magi” were apparently originally a tribe of the Medes, who lived in what is now northern Iran, north of the Persians. These Magi were famous for their knowledge of the occult and astrology, and it is from them that the word “magic” comes, via Greek and Latin. Later on in Persia and Babylonia, magicians and astrologers were known generically as “Magi” whether they were actually ethnic Medes or not; and such seem to have been the Magi of the Gospel story. We refer to them as “astrologers,” but that’s not the same thing as the fortune-telling baloney of which the supermarket tabloids are so fond. We no longer buy the basic premise that earthly affairs are influenced by the positions of the stars and planets — as one of the first of “modern” men, William Shakespeare, put into the mouth of Cassius: “Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Nevertheless, despite their premises, the astrologers of ancient Persia did approach their study of the stars with a fair amount of scholarly rigor. Given the relative primitiveness of their instruments, they described and were able to predict astronomical phenomena with remarkable accuracy. But they were not interested only in the scientific phenomena as such, but in the supposed meaning of these phenomena for human affairs. They were both scientists and seers. By religion they were probably Zoroastrians, but they would have been familiar with the Hebrew scriptures — there were many large Jewish communities in Babylonia and Persia, dating from the exile centuries earlier — and one of the prophecies they may well have known is this verse from the Book of Numbers (24:17): “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” A somewhat obscure verse, perhaps, but we know that in the years just before the Christian era it was regarded as a prophecy of the vindication of Israel by the Jewish sect (Essenes or something like) that wrote the War Scroll, one of the documents found fifty years ago in a cave at Qumran by the Dead Sea.
And so when our Magi saw the star, it was not just a matter of scientific interest but of deeper import for world history. What was it they saw? We don’t know. One speculation has been that they saw a supernova — an exploding star suddenly dominating the night sky for some weeks — although there is no certain corroborating evidence of such a phenomenon at that time. More likely is a conjunction of planets, and apparently there was indeed a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces a few years before the death of Herod, right before the turn of the era. Conjunctions of planets were the kind of thing which were of immense interest to astrologers but not particularly obvious to anyone else.
The Magi were not just educated men, learned men by the standards of their time, they were wise men. Their life work was seeing the significance of phenomena — the meaning of things. They not only charted and computed the movements of the heavens, or what they interpreted as the movements of the heavens. (As Galileo would insist sixteen hundred years later, it is not the heavens, but the earth that moves. But I digress.) The Magi attempted to perceive what this all meant for human beings; and if we today would want to say that astrology was the wrong tree to be barking up (swat that metaphor!), we would still want to affirm and admire their fundamental quest for meaning. Ultimately, to be in quest of meaning is to be attentive to God. In fact, we might define being wise as “having a taste for God,” a sensitivity to God’s action in the world. As the Scriptures often remind us, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.”
And the Magi were wise men. They perceived that God was up to something, and that God wanted their witness. So they packed up and went on pilgrimage to find the newborn king of Israel. And they found him. But not where they first looked — not in the royal palace in Jerusalem. They found him in a humble rural village. That in itself is a mark of their wisdom, of their taste for God, of their sensitivity to how God does things in the world: they recognized Jesus when they found him, no matter how unlikely the circumstances may have appeared.
Remember the bumper sticker that said, “Wise men still seek him”? So they do. And from the wise men we learn something of what true wisdom is. Not only to see what’s going on in the world, but to see what it means, to see God’s hand at work in the world about us, to see what it requires from us in response. True wisdom is to have in the midst of this world a taste for God.