Magi: Imagining Unity’

Posted: January 2, 2019 in Uncategorized

Matthew 2:1-12

Magi: Imagining Unity’

Even though perhaps the earliest of the Christmas stories to be challenged in its historical value the image of the wise men from the East kneeling before the infant child, offering their gifts, has been an inspiring symbol of worship for countless generations. Most of us have sung at some time the words ‘As with gladness men of old…’‘We three kings of orient are…’ One could claim perhaps with the rise in awareness of inclusive language and challenges to the idea of monarchy and kingships and the links to empire thinking there has been a waning of popularity in the wise me story. But even so the story, itself, has always fascinated people because it links Jesus to the wider world of the orient and to the mysteries of the heavens. The international status is heralded by the story and we like that and if we stumble on the King, idea, we can always settle in the wise men focus. Wisdom is equated with inclusiveness and balances out the downside of Kingdoms and Kingship which as patriarchal overtones. And we can always remind ourselves that it is only the storyteller Matthew who tells for us the story of the Magi who come to visit Jesus.

The truth is that this story has been richly embellished over the years. The number of the Magi is not given in Matthew’s story. In Christian imagination they have ranged from two to a whole cohort. But in most of nativity art, from earliest times to the present, there are three. Which seems natural that three gifts should have three carriers! And after all we have all those ornamental crib sets that couldn’t be wrong? This question of numbers may seem to be a bit of trivia reserved for Trivial Pursuits evenings and dining with pious clerics. But the conversation definitely heats up when someone suggests that the number was zero! That the story of the Magi is only ‘legendary’.

We may even remember the names that Christian imagination has given them. They were called: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. And they were maybe Astrologers, magicians, and or philosophers? About the latter there are differing opinions. And again, despite our nativity cribs and Christmas cards, no suggestion as to the mode of transportation is offered in the Matthew story.

Contemporary storyteller and Catholic theologian John Shea, suggests: “The Magi may be dubious as historical facts, but in the Christian tradition they have been credible bearers of rich insights into strange ways of faith…  The story became more a springboard for the imagination than an anchor for sober reflection” (Shea 2003:130).

Shea goes on to further suggest that the Magi of popular poetry and story: “… do not claim to be authentic interpretations of Matthew…  Yet they do try to tell the truth about some of the common patterns of our lives.  I want to suggest that this is a key point to remember. First, they try to make good on the Isaiah promise that is connected with the feast of the Epiphany: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone’.” And then they tell a story that speaks to what we know as human beings and its that that I want to explore a little today as we think about epiphany, about what it means to us, about what it says about our living. What are these ‘Magi of popular poetry and story’ that they stimulate our imagination and show us a glimpse of unity

G. K. Chesterton wrote an essay on three modern wise men. They journeyed to a city of peace, a new Bethlehem, where they offered their gifts. I want to use his rendition and depart a little from it to make my point.

The first gift would be to offer gold suggesting it could buy the pleasures of earth. Here is the link to our desire to own things to have things within our control, to possess, isolate to ourselves, be it simply getting on, on our own steam or the ills of narcissism where we are the center of the world and everything exists for us alone. The wise men seek a new birth to find the answers. How do we be human and love each other? How do we create unity? A way of living together? Valuing individuality and uniqueness.

The second would offer the modern scent of chemistry – the power to drug the mind, seed the soil, control the population. Here we have the link to our obsession with escape and profit and the ability of all sorts of drugs to make our world easier to live in, be it prescription or illicit. The wise men seek a new birth to find a way of living with this need. How do we be human and love each other? How do we create unity? A way of living together? Valuing our need for time out as well as application?

Chesterton has the third as an offer of myrrh in the shape of a split atom – the symbol of death for anyone who opposed the ways of peace. maybe myrrh here is more akin to perfume than P or heroin but maybe its is just as destructive or helpful in that it is a way, we fool ourselves in our thinking, and maybe this is more important in that we can justify horrendous actions of destruction when floating in a cloud of lavender or smelling the roses, unaware of the nuclear war just waiting for catalyst. Road rage suggests it doesn’t heed much.

When the wise men arrived, they met Joseph, but he refused them entrance. They protested; “What more could we possibly need to assure peace? “We have the means to provide affluence, control nature and destroy enemies?” Joseph whispered in the ear of each individually. They went away sad.  He told them they had forgotten the child.

There is another legend that the Magi were three different ages. Gaspar was a young man. Balthasar in his middle years. Melchior a senior citizen. When they approached the cave in Bethlehem, they first went in one at a time. Melchior found an old man like himself.
They spoke together of memory and gratitude. The middle-aged Balthasar encountered a teacher of his own years. They spoke passionately of leadership and responsibility. When Gaspar entered, a young prophet met him with words of reform and promise. The three met outside the cave and marveled at how each had gone in to see a new-born child, but each had met someone of his own years.

And yet another legend is told by poet Langston Hughes who plays upon the theme of racial unity in “Carol of the Brown King”. “Of the three Wise Men Who came to the King, One was a brown man, So, they sing. “Of the three Wise Men Who followed the star One was a brown king from afar… And the last verse: “Three Wise Men One dark like me – Part of His Nativity.”

These imaginative stories around the Magi share in the remembering and celebrating
as well as the concerns which is the season of Epiphany. The invitation to imagine unity. Thanks to the poets among us, those legendary foreigners from the East can be our spiritual guides today.  For they crossed the boundaries of geography, ethnicity, class, economics, and religion, to follow their star.

We have all been given our own star or, better still, each of us has a “personal legend”. As others have said… we embody God’s dream for the world in a unique and singular manner…“We acknowledge this awesome mystery embodied in every human person, aware that each gives God unique and personal expression” (Morwood 2003:20).

The story suggests that epiphany is a call us to follow that dream into unlikely places and to see that dream in unlikely and ordinary persons. The Magi, call us to imagine the impossible, go the extra mile in search of unity and to do it ourselves. Amen.

Morwood, M. 2003.  Praying a New Story. Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Shea, J. 1993.  Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroad


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