This week our story dwells on the Magi. Now, I know that the tradition of the church has the Magi show up after the birth, but let’s face it, I am always on vacation the week after Christmas and never get to spend time on the Magi. So here we are.
I think the tale of the Magi is really important, and has something surprising to teach us. Notice, that I don’t use the name wisemen or kings. In this case, Magi is the word. Magi is the word that is used in the scripture in Greek. Our tradition has been muddied with kings and wisemen and astronomers, and it seems there are two or three possible reasons for this. First, it could simply be a lack of understanding of what a Magi was, and an attempt to explain it using characters from western culture that we understand. We know what a king is, or what a wiseman is, or what an astronomer is, and that can be a simple explanation. Most people don’t actually know what a Magi was.
And that brings us to a second possibility. It could be that Christian tradition has been uncomfortable with the implications of what a Magi was, and so tried to subtly dismiss the title by replacing it with other options. You see, Magi were particular people from a particular place and from a particular religion. The Magi were religious leaders of the Zoroastrian tradition coming out of Persia. Since most of us have been raised in the western educational tradition, we don’t realize that at the time of Jesus, Zoroastrianism was the most dominant religion on the face of the earth. It’s influence had spread everywhere—even Israel.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions on the planet. Ahura Mazda is the deity in Zoroastrianism, and there is an ongoing battle between the good Ahura Mazda and the evil Angra Mainyu—images of whom look an awful lot like later Christian depictions of the devil. Traditionally, these two have been represented by light and dark. In fact, ideas about eternal flames probably came out of Zoroastrianism, as there was often a flame at the center of worship spaces. The flame symbolizes Ahura Mazda, and at times, Zoroastrians were thought to simply worship fire because outsiders didn’t realize the flame was a symbol of Ahura Mazda. As you can imagine, light of any kind becomes representative of Ahura Mazda—God—even starlight.
This is where the emphasis on Magi becomes important and potentially challenging. Magi following the light of the star would have been following the lead of Ahura Mazda. This would have been understood as the most powerful religion in the world recognizing Jesus as an important leader, prophet, and potentially even divine. This is why the Magi piece is important—the divine light points to who Jesus is. However, this is also potentially challenging in Christian tradition, because it indicates that there is religious wisdom beyond our own tradition. One reason that we may have moved away from Magi to talk about kings and wisemen was because we weren’t comfortable with the notion that another religion had wisdom about the person of Jesus Christ. The implication would be that there is something to learn from people of other faiths. This has not always been a welcome idea in our tradition.
Of course, the third possibility for why we moved away from Magi is that it doesn’t flow in Christmas carols in quite the same way—“We Three Magi of Orient are…” may not have the same ring to it!
I suppose that what I am suggesting is that the reason the word Magi is important is because it suggests to us that other people and other faiths do have wisdom that we can learn from. That does come as a challenge to us. We must be ready to listen and engage with others who are different from us. After all, they may understand something of the light that we don’t. So as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ child, be mindful of the fact that there are others out there from different traditions that celebrate different holidays this season. Matthew teaches us that we have been the beneficiaries of the wisdom of other traditions in the past. Perhaps it means that we would all benefit from a less contentious relationship between people of different faiths. I suppose that is why I tend to wish people, “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” It is an acknowledgement of the great breadth of wisdom that God has granted to all of God’s Children. It is an acknowledgment of the respect that people of other faiths deserve. So Happy Holidays!
In the same spirit of my reflection today, check out this wonderful commercial from Amazon. Yeah, I know, I usually rail against commercialism, but in this case, I will make an exception. Enjoy!