St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3.1.12; Matthew 2.1-12
The Journey Of The Magi – T. S. Elliot
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
I have long loved the imagery in this poem – the “three trees on the low sky” call to mind three crosses, and the “old white horse” galloping away in the meadow calls to mind the pale horse (death) in the Book of Revelation. The visit of the magi gives us much to ponder.
Many scholars question whether the visit actually occurred. Matthew was undoubtedly aware of Isaiah’s words: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. . . . A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and they shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60.3, 6; NRSV). Likewise, he would have been aware of the references to kings in Psalm 72, a psalm believed to have been used in coronation ceremonies: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts. All kings shall bow down before him, and all the nations do him service” (Psalm 72.10-11; NRSV). Might Matthew have created this account to lend credence to these references; might he have used this as a literary device to illustrate deeper truths? There is no way to answer with certainty.
Who were the Magi? Niveen Sarras reminds us “Magi is a plural form of magoi in Greek.” The magoi were Zoroastrian priests, not kings. They were skilled in interpreting dreams and practicing astrology; in telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes. They were the scholars of their day and time, and they enjoyed access to the emperor of Persia. They had experienced “the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, and the silken girls.” They knew whose star was rising and falling (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931).
Prior to Islam, Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Persia (present day Iran). It is an ancient religion, one of the world’s oldest; it continues to be practiced in parts of Iran. The main prophet, from whom the religion is named, was Zoroaster. Here Sarras points to, and documents, some interesting parallels to Christianity:
Zoroastrians believe that Zoroaster was miraculously conceived in the womb of a 15-year-old Persian virgin.2 Like Jesus, Zoroaster started his ministry at age of 30 after he defeated all Satan’s temptations.3 He predicts that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.”4 Zoroastrian priests believe that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars.5
However, Christianity does not consider Jesus to have been merely a prophet, but rather the Son of God. On this point, Islam stands closer to Zoroastrianism, for it considers Jesus to have been a great prophet born of a virgin.
The story of the Magi has captivated Christians for centuries. John Pilch, a noted commentator on biblical matters historical and cultural, observes, “Just as our ancestors in the Faith frequently reflected upon and interpreted their scriptures creatively to help them understand and explain Jesus, so too did their Christian descendants throughout the ages continue that creative reflection upon Matthew’s story of the Magi’s visit to the newborn Jesus” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/EpiphanyC010619/theword_cultural.html).
Matthew nowhere tells us they were kings nor that there were three of them (So much for “We three kings of orient are”). The Roman catacombs of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus reflect two visitors; Easter Orthodox tradition expands that to twelve. Matthew’s mention of gold, frankincense and myrrh led us to believe there were three visitors. By the end of the second century, the Magi had been granted kingly status, and, as Pilch observes, “A tradition dating from about A.D. 700 describes one of the visitors as ‘black-skinned and heavily bearded’ and named Balthasar” (Ibid). At some point, the names Caspar and Melchior were added.
And what are we to make of this star? As previously noted, the Magi, the Zoroastrian priests/astrologers read the stars. Although Matthew does not draw upon Numbers 24, here we read of Balaam’s oracle uttered in the Spirit of God: “The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is clear, the oracle of one who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty. . . I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near—a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel. . . (Vs. 15-17a; NRSV). Matthew refers to the star as follows: “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” (2.2; NRSV). Matthew further tells us “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (2.3; NRSV). No one likes uncertainty. What could this “child who is king of the Jews” mean? What might this event portend? King Herod consulted the chief priests and scribes, and learned the Messiah, according to Micah’s prophecy, was to be born in Bethlehem.
Hence, the Magi set out for Bethlehem of Judea, “and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2.9-10; NRSV). Might this star have been the manifestation of some heavenly light, perhaps some angelic presence? We do not know, and we cannot know. Perhaps Matthew is exercising literary license. Yet these details, while fascinating, and the source of considerable speculation across the centuries, are not the real focus of the story.
What are we to take away from the story of the Magi? What is its meaning for us? Matthew further tells us these wise men from the East, these gentiles, entered the house, saw the child and Mary, knelt before him, paid him homage, then opened their treasure chests and gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh – gifts of great value. Frankincense and myrrh were so prized in ancient times they were more valuable than gold.
What star, what light, has led you to an encounter with Jesus? Have you knelt before him? Have you paid him homage – have you worshiped, praised, and adored him? If so, what were you compelled to give Jesus? The greatest gift we can give is the gift of our life, our love, and our adoration. In so giving, we surrender our self, our willful pride and ego. When we do that, the Spirit of God moves in and dwells within us. In return, we receive salvation – new life, not only in the age to come, but now. Most of us think of salvation in terms of eternal life, but it is so much more. Christ would save us from living in accord with the values of this world – from envy, from strife, from the madness of pursuing wealth, power, and prestige. The kingdom of heaven is not some far off place to be realized in the resurrection; it is here and now.
Matthew closes this account by noting the wise men were “warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2.12; NRSV). The wise men chose not to betray Jesus, they took another road. After they met Jesus, they were no longer at ease among “an alien people clutching their gods.” May we remain faithful and take the new road.