The Gospel writer we call Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospel writers. He’s the one who most often puts the story of Jesus in the context of Hebrew scripture–”Thus, as it was written…,” Matthew often says. He begins his gospel with a genealogy, tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, the father of the Jews, through David and the various grandmothers and grandfathers of Jesus, down through “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”
As we heard in the reading from the prophet Isaiah, there is a universal stream in the Jewish tradition– “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The Jewish people, at their best and brightest, are a light to the nations, not just a parochial, exclusive, tribal sect, and phrases from Isaiah’s prophecy infuse Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth– “A multitude of camels shall cover you….they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
So, according to Matthew, after Jesus was born, it was not Jewish shepherds but foreign astrologers from the East who came to find the Child. These wise men, or magi, were quite possibly Zoroastrians, followers of the ancient Persian religion that read signs and patterns in the stars and sky, who were simply doing what they were called to do–studying the stars–when they discovered something worth exploring more deeply, something worth moving out of their usual patterns and routines to check out, something worth the risk of a journey to an unknown destination.
They come to the political and religious center of Judaism–Jerusalem–where they assume those on the “inside” have surely seen the same thing they have observed–signs that a “child born king of the Jews has been born.” These outsiders then discover that, whereas they have come to pay homage to this new-born King, the current man with the title King wants to murder the child. So, after giving their auspicious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they go home by another way.
We are not told–and we have no reason to believe–that the magi gave up their Zoroastrianism, but no doubt they never looked upon it or the world in the same way after their journey. More light had been shed on their ancient wisdom. The light of Christ was integrated into their worldview.
The word epiphany, as we’ve said, means a “showing forth,” a “manifestation.” But more than that, it’s like the last piece of a puzzle when, put in place, reveals a deeper, broader meaning. So there’s a sudden realization or comprehension about what the whole thing means. This new information or experience, insignificant by itself, now illuminates a foundation or structure that had previously been hidden. An epiphany is an “ah ha!” moment.
The journey of the magi enlightened their understanding of the bigger picture that their study of the stars and planets had led them to but had been inadequate on its own. And just so, by including this story of these exotic visitors from the east in his story of the birth of Christ, Matthew adds a piece of the puzzle that turns on the Light, so to speak, for his community of Jewish Christians: It’s not just about us. This Light is meant not just for the Jews but for everyone. In fact, our Establishment tried to put the Light out. God is perfectly able to use whatever instruments God wants to fulfill the Divine Intention for the world. Don’t be too quick about judging someone by the crown or turban on their head or by the signs tattooed on their bodies or the cars or camels they drive.
Christians have historically looked upon other religious traditions in a variety of ways. One, that still has plenty of currency, is the exclusive one– that ours is the only true religion. The only way to experience God is through Jesus. Another is that ours is the superior understanding, but recognizing that other traditions have value. Still another is the inclusive perspective–that from the same Source there are many paths, all leading to one destination. One expression of this says that all people, then, are “anonymous Christians,” just as there is a Hindu saying, “all people are Hindus.”
A fourth perspective, which I tend to prefer, is the pluralist one–there are different visions of reality, with different understandings, different values, and there is no need for uniformity. What we need is dialogue. We can remain “Christian,” but deepen and widen our spirituality through understanding the wisdom and perspectives of other traditions. Through them God sheds more light on our own tradition.
The story of the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child is a critical piece in the bigger puzzle, especially in our world of instant communication, ready access to the teachings of other traditions, and constant interaction with people from every part of the world. God has ways of reaching and illuminating people of all cultures and traditions, and those ways are multiple, complex, and specific to those cultures and traditions. God’s revelation to humankind is ongoing and evolving–God is still speaking, if you will–and how that revelation is communicated and understood depends on the specific culture and vocabulary of the people receiving the revelation.
This applies not only to different religious traditions but also to different generations and different cultures. The digital generation may look for and receive God’s light in very different ways and places than those of older generations. Pastor John Robinson told the Pilgrims setting off for the New World that “God has yet more light and truth to be revealed from his holy Word,” and that is as true today as it was then.
The magi, after finding and experiencing the Christ Child, went home by another way, “warned in a dream,” Matthew says, not to return to Herod. There is real and present danger in clutching too tightly to the understandings and privileges of our own tradition. It’s too easy to lose our perspective, to develop blind spots that keep us from seeing the shadows that may have developed in our own understandings.
One of the real gifts for me of my various times spent at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health is the interplay and enrichment of different religious traditions. Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Sufi, and Christian traditions offer their wisdom and practices, and I find my own Christian perspective enhanced, enlightened, and refined, rather than threatened.
John Philip Newell, the wonderful Scottish poet and theologian, says that Epiphany is not just about the appearance of God but rather the transparence of God–God’s Light is at the heart of and in everything.[Day1.org] That Light shines beyond the boundaries of our traditions and our assumptions, enlightening the path forward.
That Light radiates from within the bread and the cup, and as we take the bread and juice into our bodies, so we take in the Light and become vessels of it. May this blessing be ours as we join the magi on the journey home this Epiphany day–
May the angels of light glisten for us this day.
May the sparks of God’s beauty dance in the eyes of those we love.
May the universe be on fire with Presence for us this day.
May the new sun’s rising grace us with gratitude.
Let earth’s greenness shine and its waters breathe with Spirit.
Let heaven’s winds stir the soil of our soul and fresh awakenings rise within us.
May the mighty angels of light glisten in all things this day.
May they summon us to reverence, may they call us to life. (Newell, Praying with the Earth, p.4)
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark