Monday, January 17, 2011

Matthew 2: The Magi

The magi are an intriguing bunch. They're only found in Matthew, and in fact their story really stands in place of the story of Jesus' birth.

We place them in contradictory professions -- wise men, kings,  astrologers.

Some say there are three, but that's not specified in the scripture.  Probably instead it's derived from the fact that they bring three gifts.

One thing that seems pretty likely is that they weren't Jews.  They come from the East, and don't know the whereabouts of Christ;  astrology was a profession of Babylonia; and the gifts they bring, gold and frankincense in particular, are associated with Arabia or the Syrian Desert.  So they're not Jews. They're Gentiles, just like us.

And for me, that's the key.  Theologically, of course, the fact that they're Gentiles is a way of indicating the breadth of Christ's authority.  He's not just king of the Jews, he's king of us all.

But much like the shepherds in Luke's gospel, the Magi are also our stand-ins, people who don't totally understand what's going on and yet have this good news announced to them in different ways and respond. As with the story of Joseph, really, the emphasis here is not on the fact that Jesus is born but how people respond. The Magi pay homage; Herod wants him dead.

What response will we choose?

Some years ago, I came upon a great poem by T.S. Eliot about the Magi.  In it, Eliot imagines in great detail their journey, the challenges of it, the moment of arrival.

And then he ends, quite unexpectedly, with the cost of what they've seen.  As Gentiles, worshippers of other gods, to come face to face with Jesus is to have their own faith foundations shaken, their worlds turned upside down and rendered in some ways foolish, in others irrelevant.  

If the Magi stand in for us, so their struggle is our own.  What failures or lacks does the Christ child reveal in us? What gods that we worship are proven to be false?

And how will we choose to respond?

Journey of the Magi

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T. S. Eliot

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