The Magi visit is like something right out of a sci-fi drama! Like a scientist working in obscurity, peering through his telescope, and suddenly he spots something in space that’s never been there before. It’s like a biologist discovering a strange mutation which has never appeared before. Something is happening!
In the movies it’s always a sign of some impending apocalypse. And no one will listen as the scientist rushes here and there trying to alert the clueless world to it’s approaching doom. Because, clearly, the unexpected is always bad. Things change!
So the appearance of the Magi is greeted like the discovery of an asteroid on a collision course with planet earth. King Herod is disturbed and all Jerusalem with him. It’s the end of the world as they know it! Be afraid! Be very afraid!
The coming of the Magi was the end of the world as Israel had known it for a long, long, long time. But that wasn’t a bad thing. It was very, very good. Ah…but like nearly everything in the Christmas season, so too the Magi are much debated. And yet the debates so often miss the point entirely.
Of late it seems to be the thing to criticize the venerable tradition of the little manger scene. Not just the tedious church/state argument about manger scenes on public property, but the manger scene itself! Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote a book about the birth of Jesus in which he correctly notes how little detail we have from the Bible about that event. It’s true. Outside of Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, some shepherds, the angels, and a manger in Bethlehem…that’s it!
Oh…but that’s all the encouragement it takes for every humorless, unimaginative literalist to crawl out of the woodwork and shout “Away with those manger scenes! They’re all wrong!”
It’s true that while St. Luke mentions the manger, that manger could have been anywhere in Bethlehem…a stable, a wing of a farmhouse or the famous crowded inn, even a nearby cave. We don’t know. But it doesn’t matter, because where the manger is in Bethlehem isn’t the point.
And while the presence of a manger implies animals, St. Luke doesn’t say whether there were any there at all, or whether the place was filled with a menagerie of critters. It doesn’t matter!
And the star! Ooh…the literalists love that one. There is no mention of a star in St. Luke’s famous account of Jesus’ birth. The star only shows up here in St. Matthew’s account of the Magi visit. But…only a cold-hearted Grinch would try to erase the shining star above Bethlehem from all those works of art and those myriads of Christmas cards. Because that’s not the point!
The little manger scene is not intended to be a literal portrayal of Jesus’ birth. Duh! The manger scene is a devotional piece of art, a tradition that encompasses everything about Jesus’ birth in a visual way. Including Epiphany and the Magi visit. The Magi are always included in manger scenes, even though St. Luke doesn’t mention them at all, and in St. Matthew’s account, the Holy Family has moved into a house by the time the Magi arrive.
And those Magi are always three in number, even though the word “Magi” is merely a plural that doesn’t specify any number. Oh, but listening to the super-spiritual and hyper-critical literalists, you’d think that the Magi could be any number except three!
And, yes, “Magi” doesn’t mean king, and yet the Epiphany prophesies from the Old Testament speak of kings coming to the brightness of Christ’s dawn. So making the Magi three kings is not a denial of what we know…it is a rich symbol of many things we know all wrapped up in one…or, in this case, in three.
The same goes for the tradition of making each king a different race—Black, Oriental, Caucasian—and the tradition of giving them names—Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar—and the claim that their remains lie buried in the cathedral at Cologne, Germany. Maybe they are, maybe not. It doesn’t matter! It’s a way of expressing many things in an artistic, imaginative way. Like all of art, the truth is not in the details themselves, but in what those details, taken together, are saying. Which may be one reason the super-spiritual literalists are so distrustful of the arts!
All of this Magi tradition (and the traditions of Christmas) is a great image that speaks to the heart…not to the cold, factual reason of the brain. But…this doesn’t make it any less true for what it is saying in the way that it says it. And what all of this rich tradition says about the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Magi is that God is at work doing a new thing; His new, unexpected, unsettling, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, very good thing.
Christmas is a new thing. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That spells the end of the world for any notion that God is only up there, out there, somewhere. In Jesus, He is Immanuel, God with us. This says something new about God…and something new about us, about what it means to be human!
The Magi visit is a new thing. God’s thing. The Gentiles are now included in God’s promise to Abraham. The chosen people is no longer limited to Israel, but becomes an Israel which includes all whom God chooses in Christ. It spells the end of the world for a racially divided Christianity. It is something new, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, for all are one in Him.
This new thing is going to unfold over the weeks of Epiphany like the creative wave of a cosmic big bang. When Jesus stands in the Jordan River next week, water is no longer mere water but becomes Holy Baptism, “a water of life, rich in grace.” It is a new thing. It spells the end of the world for any understanding of baptism as something I do, as something I choose. Baptism now speaks of God’s creative work, His new work for me and in me.
The wedding at Cana in Galilee is up after that…with so much fine wine flowing that the wedding feast could go on for days and days and days. It is the end of the world for grim, humorless religion. It speaks of something new at work in the wine which Christ serves us.
And on and on through this season into Lent and finally to the cross and the resurrection. God at work all the way. God doing a new thing in all of it. God bringing the end of the world for sin and judgment, the end of the world for death and the grave. So many, many things are now afoot; new things of life with God by grace through faith because of Jesus the Christ.
So much to ponder, to take to heart. So much to see and hear and believe. So much has changed with Christmas…and we are changed with it. And here in the light of day on Epiphany we see what Christmas has begun for us. A new thing. A new world. A new us.
So let the super-spiritual and the hyper-critical rage all they want. Because God in Christ has begun His new thing in us…and we rejoice, we rejoice like these Magi…no, call them the Three Kings…we rejoice with them to be carried by this Christ and His new thing, from this day of Epiphany on to the great last Easter Day of completion!