The Three Wise Men were not particularly wise, nor were they necessarily men, and there might not have been only three of them or even three of them. They were not kings, they may not have ridden camels. They didn’t follow a star and they didn’t find Jesus in a stable, or in a cave or in an inn.
According to Matthew they were magicians, they read horoscopes but they didn’t know or understand the Hebrew Scriptures. We can assume that they had enough money to go travelling and to bring presents m- although we don’t know whether it was a kilo of gold, frankincense and myrrh – or just a token grain. Mark, Luke, John, Paul and even Jesus himself don’t think that any of them, or their presents, are actually worth mentioning as part of the Gospel story – which is a bit odd if they set Mary and Joseph up nicely with enough gold to put down a deposit on their first house.
In fact, if you were to pin most biblical scholars up against the wall and force them to tell you what they really think about the three wise men – they would probably tell you that they think that Matthew made the whole thing up – lock, stock and barrel !
Even I, who to the amazement of my contemporaries at Seminary am fondly and conservatively romantic enough to believe that the Virgin Mary told St Luke all about her angels, her shepherds and about visiting Elizabeth when she was sixth months pregnant – as she was sitting for him to paint his famous icon of her – even I think Matthew’s Magi owe more to fiction than to fact.
To remind you : the New Testament says nothing about camels, nothing about following a star on a journey – just something about seeing his star at its rising – or in the East – , nothing about there being three of them or their being men or being kings – they arrive after the baby was born, not on the same night that he was born – and there is no mention of it being only 12 days after the birth when Mary and Joseph were just getting over the Bris four days earlier – and they enter a house.
Perhaps one day we will re-write our Christmas Carols, redesign our crib sets and perhaps one day we might even begin to look at our Bible more critically.
Personally I think Matthew was doing a perfectly respectable bit of writing, using a style called Midrash which was very common amongst rabbinical teachers – looking at passages in the scriptures and then teasing out parallels, connections, meanings, allegories and the rest – you could say finding the spiritual meaning in the words of the Bible. How often – for example – does Matthew say: this was to fulfil what was written in the prophets ? – a clue, I think, that Matthew is looking to the scriptures to find meaning and ideas and theology for the present day.
So he reads of stars rising the east :
A star shall rise from Jacob, and a man shall spring up out of Israel. … All the kings of the world shall adore, every nation shall serve him. We read that in the book of Numbers – and the choir sang it as the introit:
He reads of camels and gifts :
A multitude of camels shall cover you, all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord – MarKo read in the first reading from the prophecy of Isaiah.
He reads of gentiles worshipping
All kings shall bow down before you, and all the nations shall do you service.
We sang that in the psalm.
Matthew has done a good job in weaving together these bits of the tradition. But he hasn’t done it so that we can sing We three Kings of Orient are – and dress up our nativity play children in capes and crowns. Matthew has a number of challenging points to make. – a deeper spiritual significances to make first of all his Jewish hearers – and now us, slightly uncomfortable. .
Let’s name a few of them :
First : the arrival of the Magi tells us that God has been calling eastern religious pagan mystics in the past and we didn’t know anything about it. In fact Matthew reminds us that we don’t control who God speaks to, or how God speaks to them, or where it happens – or even what the results are.
After the story of the Magi we can no longer say that God doesn’t speak to non-Jews or non-Christians – or to people outside the Book – or that God doesn’t call them, or lead them or guide them – because God clearly does. And the Magi are about as New Age and awkward for us as you can get : mystic Meg and Mars in Sagittarius with conjunctions in the third house – just to drive this difficult point home.
Second: God speaks to non-Jewish and non-Christian mystics even when they go away again and don’t join our club – and that’s none of our business. All we know about the Magi is that they go home by another way. They are changed, sure – they go home by another way – but we are not told that they convert – they just go home. And that is a challenge.
Third: – and this is the bit where Christianity does become just a bit triumphant – Jesus is the messiah – even for non-Jewish, non-Christian, non-believing pagans. I don’t think Matthew has any doubt about that. Bethlehem, house of David, Royal line, worship even. Matthew uses strong language. Jesus is King, Priest and Prophet – the most obvious meaning of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – and Jesus is King, Priest and prophet for all the world not just for Mary and Joseph and the people of Judea.
We need to be a little careful about this one though – This is a statement about God and God’s action in the world, not a statement about Christianity. God in Jesus is the Saviour of the whole of creation – is not at all the same as saying that we Christians actually understand what God in Jesus is the Saviour of the world actually means !
Ironically the sentence God in Jesus is the Saviour of the world is the very opposite of what people often mean by that : it is all inclusive and all embracing. It absolutely does not say Faith in Jesus is what saves the world. – that is something totally different – and I don’t know whether the Magi would have passed the test – although I do think they are saved.
Yes, they worshipped – but in their own magical way. They did not sacrifice a dove, offer a burnt offering or sing psalms – interesting.
And did they really exist ? If you pin me against a wall would I say, like most biblical scholars that I think that Matthew made the whole thing up ? Well not quite – I have already told you I have a rather shocking romantic conservative streak.
It seems to me very likely that a whole bunch of strange visitors passed by Mary and Joseph’s house to look at the new baby. In fact the reverse would be really odd – strange people still lean over the cots of the newly born even in our own day and start making funny noises at new born babies.
And people say the strangest of things : you don’t have to go very far, talk to one of our vergers about the visitors to the cathedral who say that they have followed stars, been led here, heard voices or are on some kind of a spiritual quest. I’m not saying that the Magi were mad – just that it seems perfectly possible that strange foreigners looked in on Mary’s child and said strange things about astrological omens and spiritual journeys and dangers in the capital city. Perhaps Matthew didn’t invent the story after all – perhaps he just tidied it up a little – who knows.
As todays collect would say if we interpret it a little :
Eternal God, who by the wierdest of all possible means – well outside the box – led the strangest of all possible people who happened to have just enough wisdom to see things bigger than themselves, to come and worship your amazing divine presence here in front of their eyes in the very matter of creation – Give to everyone a bit of that inner light so that all people may get a glimpse of your amazing glory – whereever and however that may be.
I don’t think that version would get past the liturgical commission though !