Someone once said that if it had been three wise women then they would have asked directions sooner, arrived on time, swept the stable, helped deliver the baby, made a casserole and brought practical gifts…
Or put another way, this was the first and last time in recorded history that men were invited to a baby shower – on account of the impracticality of the gifts. And, with Herod later ordering the killing of all children around Bethlehem under the age of two, it’s always been assumed that they turned up quite a while after the birth.
Over the years the story that we see in Matthew has been added to, partly by tradition and partly successive translations of the Gospel. In the original Greek, Matthew just calls the visitors Magi, usually thought to be from Persia. He doesn’t say that there are three of them, he doesn’t say that they are wise or that they are kings.
Matthew doesn’t give them names and he doesn’t even say they are men because ‘Magi’ is an inclusive word which covers both men and women. Contemporary Persian culture had female politicians, warriors and priests. So, it’s not impossible that the Magi who visited Jesus included some women even if circumstantial evidence suggests that it was men who picked the presents!
That there were three visitors was supposed from the number of gifts. The idea that they were kings didn’t come about till around the 5th century. The interpretation of the gifts as signifying Christ as King, High priest and Healer didn’t come till later either.
Magi were Zoroastrian priests. Before Islam, Zoroastrianism was the state religion of what we now call Iran. It’s still active today and its emphasis, then and now, was on spreading happiness, mostly through charity, and respecting the spiritual equality and the spiritual duty of both men and women. They too believe in a Saviour of the world who will be born to a virgin… and perhaps Matthew wanted to show that not only did Jesus come to fulfil Jewish prophecy but Gentile prophecy too.
The Magi were a particular class of priests who interpreted dreams, told fortunes and prepared horoscopes. So, astrologers rather than astronomers – more Russel Grant than Patrick Moore or Brian Cox. Perhaps we’d think of them differently if we pictured them in colourfully knitted cardigans!
If you recall, Matthew wrote largely to a Jewish audience. As well as the passage that we had today from Isaiah 60, and another from Isaiah 72, perhaps he may also have had in mind the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon from 1 Kings 10:1-29. Here the Queen came with gifts of gold and spices. Maybe Matthew was connecting the gifts brought to Solomon, son of David, with another in David’s line. Emphasising the true kingship of Jesus versus that of Herod.
And Joseph doesn’t appear to be present when the group arrive and culturally it would have been inappropriate for men to be alone with a woman. So, it rather suggests that other women were present – either already with Mary or indeed with the group of visitors.
Searching for meaning
Down the centuries, Jewish Rabbi’s and scholars have used what they call Midrash to creatively interpret the Hebrew Scriptures. Midrash is like a theological reflection, a lectio divina, on the passage where they seek to find both communal and personal meaning for the here-and-now.
And over time, something similar seems to have happened with our verses from Matthew. In searching for meaning, we have acquired three kings named Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior, said to be respectively young, middle-aged and old. Balthasar is often portrayed as being black to represent the diversity of the Eastern Gentile world. And the gifts have also come to be seen as symbols of Christian life generally and not just aspects of Jesus: gold for virtue, incense for prayer and myrrh for suffering.
Our own Epiphany?
Mostly though we take our reading to show how learned, wise foreigners and outsiders knelt in homage to Jesus the Christ and recognised him as ruler – whilst Herod, King of Judea, saw him as a threat and the learned and wise religious authorities in Jerusalem possessed all the head knowledge about the Messiah’s birth but completely missed the practical application.
So, it’s not too much of a stretch to wonder if the Magi included some wise women and wonder what that means for us now. Where do we still see the gifts and wisdom of women to be ‘outside’ or ‘foreign’ in some way?
Or more generally I wonder what today we inside church have missed or what we perceive as a threat, which others outside the church can more clearly recognise as the presence of God? Where do we need our own Epiphany?
One of the traditions that has come down to us from outside the Bible has the Magi returning home, surrendering their positions, giving their property to the poor and spreading the Gospel. They became the first missionaries – and Gentile ones at that. St Thomas was then said to have encountered them some 40 years later in India where he baptised and ordained them. Yet another story perhaps but it would be nice if it was true.
I remember seeing on TV once a 1950’s film about another Magi who didn’t make it to the stable. Perhaps some of you remember it too? This one was named Artaban. Like the others, he sees signs in the heavens proclaiming that a saviour had been born and he sets out on his horse to see the new-born ruler, carrying gifts to give to the child. In his case a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl of great price.
However, soon after he sets-off, he stops to help a dying man, which makes him late to meet-up with the others. He can’t cross the desert with only a horse, and he is forced to sell one of his treasures to buy the camels and supplies necessary for the trip.
The delay means he arrives in Bethlehem too late to see Jesus, who has by this time fled with his parents to Egypt. But Artaban saves the life of a child, one of the innocents about to be slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers, at the price of another of his treasures.
He then travels to Egypt and to many other countries, searching for Jesus and performing acts of charity along the way. After 33 years, Artaban is still a pilgrim, a seeker after the light.
He arrives in Jerusalem at the point of the crucifixion. Too late it seems. He spends his last treasure, the pearl of great price, to ransom a young woman from being sold into slavery.
Unto the least of these
In the earthquake that follows Christ’s death on the cross, Artaban is struck on the head and mortally injured by a falling roof tile. He is about to die, having seemingly failed in his quest to find Jesus, but having done much good throughout his life. It’s what my wife would call a rubbish ending! Although she may not use the word ‘rubbish’…
But as he dies, he hears a still, small voice saying to him: “Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.”
With the freed young woman at his side, he passes away in a calm radiance and glow of wonder and joy. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found his King.
Spend our treasures
Back to our Gospel, the Magi, whether they were wise men or wise women, took great risks and made great effort to seek out Jesus. They rejoiced when they saw him and paid him homage. Do we? What risks and efforts do we make? How much do we rejoice? And do we really pay homage to Christ the King, the incarnated Son of God?
Or maybe we should be inspired by the story of Artaban, the other Magi. We too didn’t get to meet Jesus at his birth in the stable 2000 years ago. But we can encounter him every day in the way that we look and speak and act towards those that we meet along the way – and in the manner with which we spend our treasures. Amen
- For other posts about the Magi:
- For Artaban’s story in full (by Henry Van Dyke) – https://www.gutenberg.org/files/19608/19608-h/19608-h.htm
- There’s also an argument that the visitors, be they wise women or wise men, came from Arabia rather than Iran since myrrh apparently comes from trees that only grow in Southern Arabia. And this ties in better with the Queen of Sheba since Sheba is in Southern Arabia. See: Bailey, K. (2008). Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.SPCK.