“I cannot be awake, for nothing looks to me as it did before, or else I am awake for the first time, and all before has been a mean sleep.”
― Walt Whitman
He Qi, The Adoration of the Magi
Matthew 2:1-2 NRSV
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed a star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the Magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the East, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
So there’s this little, obscure story in Matthew’s Gospel that appears nowhere else, and it’s really led to some questions over the centuries…
Who are these mysterious Magi characters?
Wait–Jesus spent his childhood in Egypt? Who knew?
Wait–there were not 3 “wise men” and no drummer boy?
The story of the Magi is full of mystery. The fact that this story does not appear in Mark [the first Gospel written], and neither in Luke or John, raises questions as to its validity.
There are historical problems galore in this account.
First of all, placing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Egypt for an extended period of time contradicts Luke’s narrative that they were in Bethlehem for a month after Jesus’ birth before heading home to Nazareth. Egypt from Bethlehem would have been a long walk—over 450 miles.
Also, how does a star stop over one particular house?
And, if King Herod did have Roman troops looking for all boys under the age of two in order to kill them, how come there is no historical record of this?
But keep in mind that this story wasn’t written for us. It was written for readers in the 2nd century—people who knew what Magi were all about.
They would have known that Magi [pagans, by the way], from the East [maybe Assyria?], made astral observations and studied the movement of the stars. It’s not explained why these learned scholars/astrologers would be so interested in a foreign king. That is, unless they thought that this was something hugely prophetic.
Well, the story then gets obvious as to its purpose. The Magi naturally go to Jerusalem, the capitol of the Jewish community of Judea, and of course, it was also occupied by the Romans. There they find out from Jewish chief priests that indeed a baby will be born in Bethlehem. Ironically, it is the non-religious, Gentile Magi who end up going to visit the so-called Jewish Anointed One, while the actual Jewish religious leaders and politicians don’t even go near Bethlehem.
This is Matthew telling us something: this version of the story will highlight the hypocrisy of the chief priests and eventually, the adult Jesus’ criticism of the temple system. Forget facts, this is about making a point. Jesus of Nazareth, though a Jew, did not represent the temple authorities. In fact, Matthew is offering a scathing report of these so-called “religious authorities.” Magi are the first ones to see Jesus and they get it. And they are not even religious. And as for the Judean authorities and King Herod, they are painted as killers, liars, and power mongers.
I don’t know about you, but I have seen this narrative play out again and again. Ask me who some of the most antagonistic, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, power-hungry, selfish, and desperately manic people I have met are?
They are/were members of churches and also ordained clergy.
I don’t say that to make any kind of statement. Instead, what I have observed in countless years of interfaith work and as an ordained clergy in the Christian tradition, is that so-called non-religious folk tend to “get” the message a lot more than the religious folk. After all, if you are “awake” to what this story really was/is about, you would not be behaving as most self-identifying Christians do these days. The Aha! or Epiphany here is in the story itself. Jesus wasn’t born to create a religion, or an empire, or a political movement, or to make privileged people feel less guilty. No, according to Matthew and the other Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth was born into a broken, sad, and angry world in need of compassion, justice, and mercy. The religious leaders and authorities didn’t care about that. All they cared about was propagating the same systems that benefited them. Jesus was a problem for them, because he actually asked them less about their beliefs and more about their actions.
I am glad the Magi story is there.
I hope that it encourages us all to take a deeper look at the relationship between being “religious” and how that corresponds with being compassionate, justice-seeking, and empathetic. I for one will fully embrace all the Magi around us and out there—those who may not be religious, but who are awake to the world’s state and eager to help, learn, connect, and heal. That is the gift that keeps on giving.
May your aha moments give you cause for pause; may any obstacles that keep you from seeing stars rising and the light within you be removed.