The word “Advent” means coming. So the season of advent is the time when we prepare for the coming of the Christ-child into our midst on Christmas morning, and when we take the time to consider what that means to us; personally and as a church.
To help us consider and to meditate, the four weeks leading up to Christmas carry the themes of hope, peace, joy and love. This year, we will also be highlighting some of the characters in the Christmas story, so that when we hear the news of Christ’s birth – when we read about the shepherds in the fields, the angels in the sky, Mary and Joseph in the stable and the Wise Men from the East – we will have a deeper understanding of the story and of the gift God gave to humankind.
Today, we begin where the traditional Christmas story ends, with the visit of the Magi. Who were these guys?
Their story is only recorded in one of the gospels: Matthew 2:1-12. Historians suggest that they were most likely three members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, noted for their study of the stars as part of their religion.
The Western Christian Church has assigned them the names Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, suggesting that they are Babylonian, Persian and Arabian scholars. And the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are the kind of gifts that were given to a king.
It’s interesting to note that the Bible never refers to them as wise. In fact the word we usually translate as “wise men” has noting to do with being wise, or even with being men.
The word Matthew uses is “Magi,” which has the same root as the word “Magician.” In those days, Magi were usually fortune tellers, soothsayers, astrologers and interpreters of dreams. Another interesting thing about the Magi from Persia, is that their order allowed women to join.
Tradition tells us that there were three Magi who visited Jesus, but that may stem from the three gifts that were given. There may have been more and there may well have been women in their midst.
Now that we have a sense of who they were, we might ask why they were part of the story. Why did Matthew, who wrote primarily for a Jewish/Christian audience, tell the story of Magi who travelled from the East to visit the Christ Child?
There may be a clue in today’s gospel reading from Mark.
On this first Sunday of Advent, we are told by Mark to “keep awake” and to watch for signs. Mark tells us that we will be surrounded by signs to let us know that the Son of Man is coming in the clouds, with great power and glory. He will send out his angels, he will gather his elect from the four winds – from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. When we see the signs, then we shall know that he is near, so we should keep awake, so we will be ready when he comes.
It’s also interesting to note that the passage in Mark, comes just before Jesus goes to the garden to pray, and the signs he mentions – evening, midnight, the crowing of the rooster and the coming of the dawn – are all key features in the passion narrative that is about to unfold.
In a similar way, the story of the Magi who come to worship Jesus includes several signs that indicate his identity, his destiny, and his significance for humankind.
One of the most significant signs is the gifts themselves. God is a symbol of kingship on earth. Frankincense, used as incense, is symbolic of a deity, and Myrrh, an oil of anointing, was also used during the embalming process and is a symbol of his death.
In these three gifts, we are told that Jesus is the King of the Jews, the Son of God, and the promised Messiah who would offer his life for the salvation of humankind. If our eyes are open to the signs, these three gifts point the way from the manger to the cross – but far from being symbols of danger and fear, they are sign of hope, peace, joy and love.
Author Peter Woods points to another sign that might be missed, based on our experience and culture. He points to the exotic nature of the Magi and states that based on our experience, we may interpret the visit of the visitors from the East as fascinating or threatening.
As a child growing up in Ottawa in the ‘60’s I thought the wise men were magical, fascinating and exotic…but how would they have been viewed by the Jewish Christians who heard the story long ago?
Medians, Persians and Babylonians did not have a great history of relationship with the people of Israel. The Old Testament is packed with a history of conquest, oppression and exile for the people of Judea. Author Peter Woods states that a modern-day equivalent would be a visit by “Nuclear physicists from Yemen, Iran or the Peshawar province in Pakistan.” He goes on to say that “The declared motivation for their visit “to pay homage to a new Jewish King, would have been seen as a smokescreen to gather intel and probably ‘remove’ any political threat to the stability of the region…Medians, Babylonians and Persians don’t come to David’s town to worship, they come to spy and to conquer. Yet, on reaching the place where Jesus is, they do what they say they came to do. They offer him homage and present him with kingly tribute.”
Through the years, theologians have pointed to the Wise Men from the East, the Three Kings from foreign lands, the Magi, as a sign that the gospel of salvation would be offered to all the world. Is this what Matthew was trying to say to his Jewish/Christian followers?
And finally, as the story ends we read that they Magi returned home by another way. We know they did this to escape the threat of Herod, and to protect the identity and location of the Christ Child, but countless sermons have been written about how our lives change once we have encountered the presence of the Christ Child in our lives.
And so today, the gospel of Mark and the story of the Magi come together to show us the signs.
They show us the cross in the manger, they remind us that God’s love is for all people, and they challenge us to consider how are lives might be changed as we draw near to Christ. Let us keep awake. Let us keep watch. Let us open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to the message to the gospel and the meaning of the signs, because in these things is our hope. Amen