The Odd Tale of the Magi

While the calendar says that this is New Years day, for Christians, it’s still Christmas. January 6 marks the end of Christmastide with the celebration of Epiphany.  This is when we remember the visit of the Wise Men or Magi. Take a moment and re read Matthew’s account of the visit of the Wise Men. This is a familiar story yet we sometimes forget to appreciate its oddness and irony.

First, a little background on magi. The “wise men” or “magi” were astronomers and astrologers, most likely from Persia. While they had access to royalty, they themselves were not kings.  Magi claimed special insight and special abilities based on their studies. The powerful and the well to do consulted them. But at the same time, not everyone believed in their abilities. Some dismissed them as frauds. The Magi were neither universally acclaimed nor universally reviled, they had a liminal status. One didn’t necessarily dismiss them out of hand but neither did one want to whole heartedly believe them. Whatever Herod thought about the magi, their appearance was potentially troublesome for him.

It is also helpful to remember that it was not unusual in the ancient world for important persons from the “east” to travel to Jerusalem or Rome bringing gifts for rulers.  And many people believed that the birth of important persons were marked by the appearance of special phenomena in the sky.

Matthew’s story is odd and even funny in places. These learned astrologers skilled in the art of reading celestial signs follow the star to Jerusalem and then need to ask for directions. Even more oddly, they ask the current king where the new king is! “Oh King Herod, would you happen to know where your replacement is? ”  Given Herod’s ruthless reputation, perhaps not the wisest thing these wise men ever did. Never the less, the magi did notice the star, (no one else seems to have noticed it), they traveled to find the person its appearance proclaims, and they recognized that worship was the appropriate response once they found the person.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the chief priests, the scribes and all of Herod’s court missed this sign? The religious elite know where the Messiah was to be born (v5-6)because Scripture tells them,  but the quest of the magi doesn’t prompt them to go look for the Messiah. They leave that to the magi. Verse 3 tells us they found the knowledge of the Messiah’s birth frightening.  Were they afraid of Herod’s response? Were they afraid of the status quo being shaken up? Were they afraid that they would lose status and power?  Perhaps they were too busy to be bothered. The text doesn’t say.

After the religious and political elite in Jerusalem have been notified of the Messiah’s birth by the magi, and after the magi receive help from those learned in the Scriptures, (odd how they each need the other for complete information, isn’t it?) the star reappears to finish its work. The magi, gentiles of dubious reputation,  find the Christ child and worship him.

Notice that this worship of the magi, which has both religious and political overtones, is odd and out of the ordinary. It doesn’t happen in Jerusalem in Herod’s court or in the Temple. This worship happens in little Bethlehem in a humble home.

 This is a story where the people who should have been seeking the Messiah don’t leave the comfort and security of their homes. The people who seek and find the Messiah are gentiles with shaky reputations. Jesus is just a baby and already he’s hanging out with the wrong sorts of people.

There is much more that can and should be written about this story. My goal today is to encourage us to appreciate the odd and interesting ways God is a work in the world.  Now that the holiday hoopla – in all its various guises- is over, it might be appropriate for us to read the story of Jesus birth again. Read it in the quiet of January, without the choirs, without the fanfare, without the festivities.  Not that there is anything wrong with choirs and fanfare and festivities, they are all quite nice and even appropriate ways to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. But the story ( and we its readers) also benefit from a quiet, careful reading, a reading that listens to the odd and amazing story of God.


If you would like read more about the Magi and the Nativity stories here is a list of some resources:

 “Read More about it”

Here is a link to last year’s post on “The” star.  “Wondering about the Star of Wonder”

5 thoughts on “The Odd Tale of the Magi

  1. By now it’s way after Christmas–yet I enjoyed reading this. We do need to hear the story in quiet times to absorb the impact.

    We recently saw a movie titled “The Bethlehem Star.” It presented a different view of the wisemen. I’m not about to advocate giving up the long-held tradition you shared–I’ve also shared publically at times. But the new version was interesting. I especially liked that you highlighted they were gentiles. Truly, Jesus was already hanging out–when just a baby–with those his established contemporaries would reject.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s