Christmas Day: Maybe that’s why they were considered wise?

Christmas Day: Maybe that’s why they were considered wise?

Glynn Cardy

Fri 25 Dec

Three Kings came riding from far away,

Melchior and Caspar and Balthazar;

Three Wise Men out of the East were they,

And they travelled by night and they slept by day,

For their guide was a beautiful, wonderful star…

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The exotic entrance of the mysterious Magi adds colour and class to the manger scene.  Our imaginations are fired.  We love to conceive the wise ones, adorned in sparkly splendour, riding the hills on humps, then alighting to offer their obscure gifts to the wee babe.

Have you ever wondered why they got the label “wise”?  You don’t hear, for example, about the wise shepherds, or wise angels, or wise Mary or Joseph, or even wise Jesus?  Why are the Magi considered to have a monopoly on wisdom?

By faith they were Zoroastrians – worshippers of the G/god of light, Ahura Mazda.  They believed that every great person had a guiding light in heavens, which appeared as a star; and the greater the person, the brighter the star.  So when they, as the story goes, saw this astrological wonder out west, it’s no surprise they went looking for a human star.

Being religious is no guarantee of being wise.  Indeed, often religion can bring its own form of ignorance, and arrogance.  Faith, however, is about taking risks.  These Zoroastrians dropped whatever they were doing [‘bye family… painting the house is going to have to wait’] and ventured forth across the not insignificant borders of race, culture, and religion.  That took great courage – great faith. 

Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.

By culture and race they were Iraqi or Iranian.  They probably would have had a hard time getting past the front door if they’d come calling to New Zealand’s immigration department.  And especially when they told their astrological story!  “So, you followed a star?…  Okay…”  And it’s not just New Zealand of course.  Foreigners, and foreign religions, are often the subject of fear, suspicion, and hostility.  It was no different in Jesus’ day.

Stars are not like neon-lit helicopters hovering a couple of kilometres above the ground.  The nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.1 light years away.  So, the notion of the star stopping over the Bethlehem stable is an intuitive notion at best.  It is a hunch, a feeling.  The Magi’s quest was not so much about eyeing a star in the sky, but rather seeing with the inner eye, the eye of imagination, mystery, and wonder.   It was about trusting their instincts, their gut feelings.

Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.

There is no indication in the Bible that the Magi were converts to Judaism or Christianity.  They were strangers, and the culture and religion of Jesus was foreign to them.  Yet they were generously prepared to acknowledge that G/god – usually their G/god was framed around the metaphor of light – could exist outside their borders.  They realized they didn’t have a monopoly on G/god.  There was more, beyond their reach, beyond their horizons.  Light could be where they weren’t.

Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.

Every religion, like every culture, has a strong conservative element.  It wants to keep things as they are, stable and predictable.  G/god is often co-opted as the one who provides stability and predictability.  G/god becomes a parochial deity, captured like air in a balloon, and blown to the size of people’s expectations. 

Yet right at the beginning of the Jesus story we have these Magi who come from outside, deliver their gifts, and return to the outside never to be heard of again.  They come and go.  The balloon of Judaeo-Christian self-imposed theological and cultural isolation is popped.  G/god is bigger than our insider understanding, knowledge, and experience.

This would be the story of Jesus’ life – crossing borders of class, race, and gender to be with people who were different and despised.  Pricking the consciences, egos, and closed minds of those about him.  Is it any wonder that the Church created the Magi story after encountering Jesus?

The Magi almost blew it.  They went looking for a new-born king in a palace.  Logical I suppose.  “Excuse me Mr Herod Sir, great wondrous bloated brute that you are.  We’re looking for a baby king.  Had any kids you know of lately?  No?  Oh.  Are there any other kings around here?  No?  Oh.  Do we like our heads attached to our necks?  Hmmm.  Yes.  Would you excuse us a moment please?

Apart from the obvious comedy there is also a lesson about wisdom.  Contrary to popular opinion, the wise do make mistakes.  They do blow it.  The difference however between the wise and the rest, is that the wise keep going.  They don’t let discouragement deflate them.  Confusing political power with spiritual wisdom, as the Magi did, is a common mistake.  Yet they kept going, kept opening themselves to the unexpected, kept pushing on…

Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.

Compare Matthew’s Magi, for a moment, with Luke’s shepherd story.  The shepherds are told everything.  An extremely talkative angel encounters them on a hillside, and gives them all the details: where the child is, how to get there, and who will be there.  When the shepherds arrive at the manger, the angel appears again to verify the place [This is it guys!  That’s a baby].  And when the shepherds return home they are guided by a whole gang of serenading angels. 

So these shepherds have no doubts, no questions, no problems, no persecutors, and no mystery.  They didn’t have to seek information.  It was handed to them: faith on a plate; risk-free.

This is not, by and large, our experience.  The easy-come, easy-go shepherds are not for us.  Our experience is more like the struggling Magi.  We, like them, are searchers.  We have difficulty with the large questions of life.  We are harassed by our modern Herods who seek to destroy our children and our souls with consumerism, greed, and indifference.  We worry about terrorism, pandemics, poverty, and loss.  Yes, we too would like winged heavenly messengers and divinely certified assurances such as the shepherds got, but the fact is that we experience neither.  No, no doubt about it, it’s the Magi – the struggling band crossing a hot desert without a cold beer in sight – that resonate with us.  They’re our kind of people – the kind who struggle with their faith.

The bottom line is that the Magi were searchers and so are we.  Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.

The Magi also came as a caravan.  We don’t know whether there were three individuals or not.  Despite Longfellow’s poem sometimes the number is 12, and sometimes 6.  One story has that in 1164 three relics of the Magi were moved, due to a local uprising, from Milan to Cologne, but as time went on this was forgotten.  Local imagination had 3 relics still in Italy and now another 3 in Germany, totalling 6.  Imagination and Magi stories are inextricably bound.  But whether there 3, 12, or 6, with or without servants, the legend has they were a group, a caravan.  They stuck together, and searched together.

We need each other as a spiritual community.  We need the encouragement, the critique, the prayers and ideas, the doubts and dreams of one another.  Wisdom is a hallmark of a community seeking and travelling together, rather than an accolade for a heroic individual. 

In the matter of faith, the search is a communal one.  Maybe that’s why the Magi were considered wise?

So here are some tips about wisdom:

Be courageous and trust your instincts.
Go outside the borders of your knowledge and experience.
Open yourself to the unexpected.
Keeping on going even when, and especially after, you get it wrong.
Faith isn’t a dish you are served up, its gold you have to dig for.
Go digging as part of a digging community.