Wise Men came from the East to Jerusalem

Wise Men came from the East to Jerusalem

Epiphany. Fr Fergus Kerr preaches on the Solemnity of the Ephiphany of our Lord.

‘Wise men’, Magi.

Not the only magi in the New Testament… A certain Simon, who practised ‘magic’, was converted and baptized by Philip; offered the apostles money if they would grant him authority to give people the Holy Spirit; was rebuked and repented (Acts 8:9-24) – yet is remembered mainly for ‘simony’. A certain Elymas Bar-Jesus, a Jewish prophet, is also a magos; court astrologer to the Imperial proconsul, whom he tries to prevent the apostles from converting: Paul stares him down, curses and blinds him (Acts 13:6-12).

So being a magos is an ambiguous profession. Luke’s magoi are sorcerers; sinister figures who belong to the dark pagan world in which religious magic would control the Spirit or turn people away from the faith. Matthew’s Magi, in contrast, following a star and learning from their dreams, with a little help from what King Herod had heard from the chief priests and scribes of the people, came from the East, fell on their faces when they saw ‘the child with Mary his mother’, opening their ‘treasure chests’ and offering gifts appropriate to the ‘ruler who will govern God’s people Israel’ – and whom the nations and kings of the earth are prophesied to worship (cf. Psalm 72, Isa 60:1-6, etc.).

Matthew’s Magi are astrologers, supposedly expert in seeing the meaning of events from observing the planets and stars. They have some knowledge of Jewish messianic expectation – Matthew probably takes them to come from Babylon, where there was a small Jewish community – and were perhaps priests of some ancient religion – Zoroastrianism as it might be (founded in Persia, about the sixth century BC; still the religion of the Parsees).

Whatever questions one may have about the facts, the themes in Matthew’s story raise deep and disturbing theological issues.

One theme, throughout Matthew’s gospel, is that people who of course have their own religion (as everyone does, he would have assumed), but also have a vague knowledge of Jewish messianic expectation, are the ones who identify Jesus, whereas the most authoritative exponents of the Jewish scriptures are the ones who fail and finally, and culpably, refuse to recognize him. A dark theme, with terrible implications.

More hopefully and enlighteningly, on this feast of the Epiphany, the ‘manifestation’ of the infant Christ to the Gentiles (historically very much a Western, Latin, Roman feast, introduced in the fourth century and decisively shaped by the homilies of Pope Leo the Great a hundred years later), Matthew’s theme is that the fulfilment of Jewish messianic expectation means blessing for all peoples – as God promised to Abraham and in accordance with the universal salvation proclaimed by the prophets.

It is not the painful history of how soon Christianity developed as an almost entirely non-Jewish, and soon enough thereafter even an actively anti-Jewish faith, that the contrast in the story between Herod, the chief priests and the scribes, on the one side, and the Magi, on the other, so darkly foreshadows; though this cannot be forgotten. The coming of the Magi anticipates the expected fulfilment of the hopes of all the world’s religions – which suggests two further lines of reflection.

There have always been Christians who fail or even refuse to see anything good or true in any of the world’s religions. There have been times when Christians have done everything to destroy the religion they found when they came with their good news. If the idea that Christianity as the only true religion makes all other religions nothing but idolatry is unsustainable, the conflict between the apostles and the magi reminds us of the ambivalence of religion, in our own as well as in the ancient world.

There are Christians for whom the other religions seem to be just as good and true as Christianity. That would not have impressed Matthew. On the other hand, his Magi seem not to have become Christian; they return to where they came from. People of other religions respect Christianity; the visit of the Magi surely anticipates, symbolically, the possibility of mutual interest and exchange among the world’s religious traditions: opening the treasures of their wisdom even if going home by another way.

Readings: Isa 60:1-6 | Eph 3:2-3,5-6 | Matthew 2:1-12

fr. Fergus Kerr is a member of the Dominican community in Edinburgh, where he teaches theology. He is the editor of New Blackfriars, the theological and philosophical review of the English Dominicans.