The Visit of the Magi
The Xmas season is over! We’ve wished each other a Merry Xmas AND a Happy New Year, and now the festive season is PAST. The holidays (for most of us) are over. The time for singing carols and wishing peace and goodwill to all is finished. The presents have been handed out. The cards have all been delivered. The champagne has been consumed. The New Year resolutions have all been made. The decorations are all coming down. The trees have been dismantled. The metal ones have been repacked and the wooden ones have been repulped – all ready for next year. The decorations have come off the walls. The checkout chicks are no longer wearing the plush red hats as they process your groceries, and they are processing those groceries with a little less cheer. Santa is noticeably absent.
In the tradition of the church there are 12 days of Xmas, being the 12 days after Xmas, and today is the 12th day, which means that we have reached Epiphany – the celebration of the coming of the wise men. This means that we are actually at the climax of our Christmas season, but this is not how our department stores have understood it. There everything seems to be coming down even faster than it went up.
We noticed in our trip down the South Coast that there were still some metallic Santa’s overhanging the streets of one of the major South-Coast towns. It would seem that the threat of imminent bushfire had overtaken even the urgency of ridding the post-Xmas streets of Santas, but they did look out of place!
Of course it doesn’t have to be that way. Santa surely doesn’t have to disappear so quickly? It’s not a fixed part of the mythology, as far as I know, that as soon as he drops off the last present that he has to high tail it back to the North Pole without even resting the reindeer? Perhaps he could just hang around the stores for another week or so asking kids: ‘how did you like the presents? Did I get it right this year?’ That would certainly put an end to the sort of problem I heard about, where a kid walks up to Santa sitting on his throne and greets him with a good kick in the shins, saying ‘that’s for last year, you forgetful bastard’. No - catch the kid while he’s still full of Xmas spirit and in a good mood, and maybe we can all make a smoother transition into the next Xmas period.
But that’s not the way we do it. No. The presents have all been bought, the money has been made, the Santa’s have played their role, and there is nothing left for them to do. And so they vanish from sight.
The other group that normally vanishes from sight at about this time of year are the extras who fill the pews on Xmas day. ‘C&E’s’ we call them – Christmas & Easters. We didn’t have many this year! Perhaps it was the way I spoke to them after the last Xmas service, saying ‘See y’all next year’. I don’t know. But I do know that while we can’t predict who might turn up on Christmas day, we can be dead certain who will be here by the twelfth day of Xmas – just us, just the really serious Christians – just us, the wise men, and the baby Jesus – our baby Jesus!
Yes, the rest of Australia might pay Him some sort of well-intentioned homage at Xmas time, when the tinsels out and carols are playing and the booze is flowing freely. But we know who will be left at the little Nativity scene after all the singing dies down, after the angels go back into heaven, the shepherds return to their fields, and the little drummer boy goes back to his band – just Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and US ... and the three wise men of course!
Of course they’re not really part of the nativity scene as such, but we like to include them anyway. My little cardboard nativity scene I had as a child – that had the three wise men in it too, right alongside the shepherds and the animals, but strictly speaking they shouldn’t be there. The wise men came later – probably about a year later, by which time we assume the family had moved beyond the stable. The normal estimates are that the baby Jesus was between six and twenty months old when the wise men appeared on the scene – hence Herod’s killing of children two years old and under.
The other mistake we regularly make is to assume that they were kings. The ‘kings’ tradition goes back to the early church father Tertullian (who died 225). Old Testament passages said that kings would come and worship him (eg. Isaiah 49:7), hence the tradition. By the end of 6th century, the kings all had names: Melkon (later Melchior), Balthasar, and Gasper!
We don’t know whether they were kings. Indeed there is lots we don’t know about the three wise men:
- We don’t really know that they were wise.
- We can’t be sure that they were men.
- We’re not told how many of them there were. We are told they brought three gifts, so we assume three people, but the gifts might have distributed between a group of 50 people for all we know.
It is just possible that the three wise men were actually 50 silly women! We will never know for sure.
To say that we don’t know this and that about them though is not to say that we don’t know anything about them. For we are told is that they are ‘magi’ – and this does tell us something.
'Magi' - from where we get our word 'magic'! They were magicians! Not simple conjurers, but magicians who used their magical prophetic and astrological abilities to advise kings and queens on matters of state.
These ‘magi’ filled the courts of pagan nations, and have a place in European tradition as well - eg. Merlin the magician, who was advisor to King Arthur of Camelot. The Wizard of Id is another 'magus' of sorts.
Daniel, in the Old Testament, was a magus, or at least was employed to become a magus, though he distinguished himself from his fellow magi, you might remember, in that he refused to follow all the practices of his peers, and instead relied solely on God for his prophetic powers.
This was clearly not the norm, and your average magus was clearly much more like the sort of characters who advertise on late-night TV and can be found in the weekly magazines.
Of course when I look for an authoritative weekly magazine, I never look past ‘Aussie Post’, and what a fine edition this week! I hope you all bought a copy this week when you noticed who was on the front cover, and I’m not referring to Zoe, the Lamborghini-loving beach babe, but to that character with the boxing gloves around his neck, pictured just above the promo shot for the ‘Ute Mania’ article (click here to see a copy of article).
Experience told me that if I could get past the excellent articles, I would most certainly find a magus in residence somewhere in the pages of this magazine, and a little searching did not disappoint. About half way through I found her – ‘Ariel, Aussie Post’s fair-dinkum astrologer’.
Now Ariel is not the only member of the magi who finds her way into the pages of Aussie Post. A few pages further on, in the classifieds section, we find an add for Carolyn Kennedy’s Clairvoyance Line, and an even more impressive add for Laira’s group of professional psychics, tarot readers, clairvoyants, mediums, rune readers, numerologists and counselors.
Laira says that ‘when nothing but the best will do. Let the truth be known!’ At $5.45 per person per minute (plus more for mobiles) it might seem that the truth comes at a high price, but compare this to the cost of having your own magi in residence, as most of the ancient rulers in Biblical times did! Mind you, if you’re familiar with the book of Daniel you will know that one of the downsides of being a magi in residence was that you ran the risk of being put to death if you ever failed to 'let the truth be known'.
If I had to pick a magus (or ‘maga’) for my court out of this lot, I think I’d go straight for Ariel, who in her own unpolished fair-dinkum Aussie way has an aura of earnestness about her that I instinctively respect. And the accuracy of my intuitions was confirmed when I noted that her advice for me this week was to spend Thursday in bed. “You should probably spend Thursday in bed with your mobile switched off” says Ariel. “The alignment of Mercury and Neptune in your sign is not a plus for any kind of sensible thought. You’ll be a sitting duck for every kind of deranged scheme. Reality should return around Saturday.”
Now the spooky thing here is that last Thursday, being on holidays, I just about did spend the whole day in bed! 'Thank God', I thought after reading this. Imagine if I had been at the helm of the church on Thursday. Where might we all be now? Meeting out in the car park I suspect, with the church building having been traded for a handful of beans! Of course there is always a downside to such things, and in this case it is that Ange’s advice, at the same time, was to “abandon duty and cut loose... You will astonish your friends.” Unfortunately, with me spending the day in bed, she wasn’t able to cut loose as much as she would have liked to and so her friends remain largely unastonished.
And if you think that’s spooky, wait till you hear this. After making my analysis I realised that I got the magazine a week early. These prophecies apply to this week coming, so watch out!
Now I hope nobody thinks I’m being too unkind to Ariel, Post’s fair-dinkum astrologer, but there is actually a strong Biblical tradition of rubbishing astrologers whenever opportunity presents itself. Moses mocked the magi in the courts of Pharaoh you might remember. Daniel and his friends made themselves the enemies of their fellow magi in Babylon, rather than follow their ways.
The prophets railed against the practices of the magi:
‘Those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons predict what shall befall you. Behold, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame." (Isaiah 47:13-14)
'Thus says the LORD: "Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are false." (Jeremiah 10:2-3)
In the New Testament as a whole, the magi don’t receive much better treatment. Two turn up in the book of Acts – Elymas the false prophet in Acts 13, and Simon Magus in Acts 8, who tries to buy the Holy Spirit for money. Both receive rather short shrift from the Apostles.
Like their predecessors, these magi are not respected for their art by the early church. They are not considered to be a valued component in the spiritual landscape that makes up of the Kingdom of God. Their spirituality is not affirmed as an authentic expression of godly intuition. The magi are considered to be members of an alternative religion. They do not worship the God who made the heavens and the earth. They do not seek for God in the right way. Their predictions are not to be relied upon or even to be listened to. These magi are, from the Biblical point of view, superstitious pagan idolaters who are strangers to Biblical truth and not remotely part of the people of God, and yet ... when we gather around the baby Jesus at Christmas time, we notice that they are there too, and what’s worse, they seem to be there because God invited them!
“How did you know that the baby was going to be born here?” Herod asks. “God revealed it to us” they said “in the stars. We followed the stars and we got here.”
There is something wonderfully peaceful and pure to be found in standing around the baby Jesus at Christmas time – taking our stand alongside the virgin mother and the godly Joseph and the gentle animals. There’s something wonderfully pure and peaceful about it, at least until you start to notice some of the others who’ve been invited to stand around there with you – the dirty old shepherds, the tax-collectors and sinners, the loose women and violent street kids, and Ariel the fair-dinkum astrologer. And that’s not to mention all the C&E’s (all the ‘Christmas and Easters’) that we just finished saying goodbye to for another year!
Epiphany reminds us that our Christmas celebration is their Christmas celebration because our baby Jesus is their baby Jesus, because our God is their God. The visit of the Magi reminds us that Jesus is not someone that we have a copyright on, not someone that we own the rights to, not someone who is actually ours. He is the Lord of all, savior of the world. The Magi did not know much. They were confused about much. But what they did know was that our baby Jesus was their baby Jesus too.
Just when we were feeling nice and smug, just when we thought we had it all sown up - knowing who was on the inside and who was on the outside, who were God’s own people (the serious followers of Jesus) and who weren’t - God comes and puts in our way some good Samaritan, some godly tax-collector or drug-pusher, some Christmas and Easter, see-you-next-year-non-church-going-type, who, like the magi, doesn’t really understand very much, but figures that Jesus is relevant to him somewhere too.
And the truth is that they’ve got as much a right to be a part of all this as we have. For we are all guests – you and I, us and them, all guests - invited to take our stand in worship around Jesus.
Oh come. Let us adore Him. Christ the Lord
Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, January 6th, 2002