The Twelve Magi of Shir

Sermon Sunday 5 January 2020

Lessons Isaiah 60: 1 – 6 St Matthew 2: 1 – 12

Where did the ‘wise men’ come from? What do we make of the star, the star that stopped over where the Child was? What about Herod: why is he in the story? In Matthew’s Gospel, there is no inn or stable, and no mention of shepherds abiding in the fields. In music, overtures are an orchestral introduction to a great dramatic work. In Scripture, the opening chapters of Matthew (and Luke) are overtures; they introduce the broad theme of all that is to follow. We are reading ancient mythology: poetic theology.

Tomorrow, 6 January, is Epiphany. In the Spanish speaking world, Epiphany is known as Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings’ Day). In Mexico, crowds gather to taste the Rosca de Reyes – the Kings’ bread. In other countries, a Jesus figurine is hidden in the bread. The name Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’. In some European countries, children leave their shoes out the night before to be filled with gifts, while others leave straw for the three Kings’ horses. In Bulgaria, Eastern Orthodox priests throw a cross in the sea and men dive in – competing to get to it first. Following the Julian calendar, Christmas Day in Ukraine is on 7 January. The main Christmas meal or ‘Holy Supper’ is eaten the day before on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, people fast until the first star is seen. The meal normally has twelve dishes to represent the twelve disciples of Jesus. The journey of the wise men, the Magi, is marked across the Christian world.

Who were they? They have been called wise men, sages, astrologers, Zoroastrian priests, kings, stargazers and scholars. The Greek word used in Scripture is magos, which gives us Magi and is the root of our word magician, though we should not confuse our understanding of magician with that of the ancient world. The Magi predate the New Testament period: they were a priestly class who served as counselors and advisors to kings. For me, Scripture is a doorway into the Divine, a spiritual text, but let us begin looking at some of the details in the story.

In the opening verses of chapter 2, the Magi journey to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who is born king of the Jews?’ This is a shocking, offensive opening: they are asking Herod the Great, known for his brutality, paranoia and petulance, where the king of the Jews is. Herod killed two of his own sons because he feared they were plotting against him. It was said, ‘It is better to be a pig in Herod’s household than a son!’ The opening verses are shocking and offensive because Herod was the King of the Jews: he had been given that title decades earlier by the Roman Senate at the request of Mark Antony. This introductory overture tells us that the Gospel is about two kings, two kingdoms, and their competing claims.

What do we make of the star, the star which stopped over Bethlehem? Some speculate that it was a super nova, the likes of which happened in 5 or 4 BC. Others say that it was the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC or the alignment of Venus and Saturn in 3BC. Both of these would have caused an unusual brightness. In the ancient world, stars, like the sun and moon, were believed to be living beings, living creatures, and heavenly bodies endowed with mind. Philo said, ‘The stars are souls divine.’

In the fifth century text, the Arabic Gospel of the Saviour, an angel appeared to the Magi in the form of a star and led them on their journey. Angels were often depicted as bright light. Be all that as it may, in the ancient world births and deaths of great men were often augured by the appearance of a star, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. According to Josephus, a star shaped like a sword stopped over Jerusalem as a sign of the coming Jewish revolt against Roman authority. One scholar goes so far as to say that if Jesus was to be king of the Jews, one wiser than Solomon, we would expect of His birth signs in the heavens, emissaries, sages and seers visiting and a power struggle with other kings. We are handling mythology; poetic theology.

The writers of the Gospels often re-work Old Testament stories. It may be that the roots of the Magi story with their gifts comes from Isaiah 60, Psalm 72 or, perhaps, from First Kings, in which the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon to see for herself this great king. She comes from Arabia; frankincense and myrrh were expensive gifts sourced in Arabia. Jesus, like Solomon, is understood as a son of David.

On Christmas Day, I told the congregation about the Syriac Orthodox Church which, like the Coptic Church, claims to trace its origin right back to the very beginning of the Early Church. According to the Syriac Church, there were twelve magi. In a second century text called the Revelation of the Magi, they are described as an Order of Mystics; they are defined as ‘those who pray in silence.’ They came from the mythical land of Shir, the extreme eastern edge of the known world. In this text, the star is Jesus Christ Himself, who leads them to the cave in Bethlehem. Once there, the star transforms into a luminous infant. After their visit, the Magi return to Shir and tell the people that they too can experience the Presence of Christ, if they receive the food which the Christ offers. The Christ-Child is, after all, laid in a manger (or food trough).

In the text, the Revelation of the Magi, Christ says, ‘I am everywhere. I am a ray of light whose light has shone in this world from the majesty of the Father.’ Christ is said to have spoken everywhere, not just within the Jewish or Christian tradition. The early Syriac Christians had exposure to Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Hinduism, more so than perhaps any part of the Roman Empire. In their text, Christ has spoken everywhere. In chapter 24, there is a wonderful scene of the Christ-child laughing and having fun.

There are layers upon layers of meaning in these 12 verses of St Matthew’s Gospel. In this rich mythology, there is a challenge to Herod and the worship of this world. There are strands from the Old Testament and the wider culture of the ancient world. There may be things which are fantastical and unbelievable in these myths, but we need to dig down to the truth within. For me, it is a wonderful discovery to learn that the Magi may have their origin in an Order of Mystics, people who pray in silence and who hear the voice of Christ in the many rich religious traditions of the world. Christ is the Light of the World; ‘I am everywhere’. For me, there is an intuitive logic that Christ is present in all people and cultures. When we go more deeply than rational doctrine, we encounter the Presence of the Sacred.

The motif of the Magi is journey, pilgrimage, people openly and honestly in search of the Mystery at the centre of all life. The Gospel is one of encounter with the Sacred. In the midst of all the worldliness, in the shallowness of politics and power, suffering, and loneliness, it is possible to taste and see that the Lord is good. The Church needs a spiritual reformation. The last reformations took place before the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the emergence of the theory of evolution and the insights of other world faiths. The motif of the Magi is about journey, the inner journey, the life of the Spirit within us. There is nothing less boring than loving God: spiritually, we need to recapture that sense of love and adventure.