The Wise Men’s Gift of Faith

given on Sunday, January 1, 2012:

Have you opened enough gifts this week?  I expect you have.  I certainly hope you have opened up your own gift of faith, too, as we have reviewed how the Christmas story depended on the faith of the prophets, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even God himself.  The final gift of faith to open is that of the Wise Men.

Twelve days after Jesus was born, these individuals showed up to see for themselves the baby Jesus.  How did it happen that these wise men joined together to make this journey from the East and bring gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh?  Why is their story so important to include in Matthew’s gospel?

These two questions lead me to do some exploring.  I discovered some new ideas that broaden my thinking:

  • The term ‘wise men’ has been referred to in other terms—kings, magi, sorcerers, and scholars as used in the Message translation.
  • The ‘East” was not Egypt, but probably Persia, Media, Assyria, and/or Babylonia.  These locations were east of Jerusalem.
  • The ‘star’ may have been an astrological event such as a comet or even more as implied in the text of Revelation of the Magi, which is an ancient text that has recently been translated providing a new perspective on the traditional story.
  • The ‘gifts’ were the three most expensive items available at the time.  These gifts held interesting significance and were portable.  The basic understanding of giving gifts also may have additional significance that we, today, may not understand.

In sorting through these traditional and non-traditional pieces of the story, the source must be analyzed.  Remember that Matthew was written for a Jewish audience.  They knew the Old Testament history and prophecies.  They knew the promises of the 2,000 plus years of their ancestors.  The Wise Men were not Jewish; they were Gentiles.

The Message term ‘scholars’ places a much more familiar image in the 21st century mind rather than terms magi, sorcerer, even wise men and kings The term ‘scholars’ create a more logical understanding of who these individuals were.  In our contemporary thinking, scholars often share knowledge among themselves.  They seek each other’s views and discuss their hypothesizes.  They check themselves against one and another.  Decisions are made only after they have been checked and rechecked, not only by themselves, but also by other scholars.

The terms used in ancient times—magi, sorcerer, wise men, and kings—do not provide contemporary thinkers the same image.  These images today would fall under the category of magicians, fortunetellers, political figures, and so forth.  Scientists or scholars answer our questions much more authoritatively today.

Of course, a political twist to this story is also one of geography.  Why, in my head, did I have the scholars arriving from the west rather than the east, I do not know.  Egypt always seemed like the source of the Biblical wise men and I knew that the east was not the right direction.  I always viewed Egypt as South and West of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.  Coming from the east meant an entirely different perspective.

Consider the Roman Empire.  At 7 BC, the Roman rule covered an enormous region.  The Roman Empire encircled the entire Mediterranean Seas—from the tip of Portugal and Spain, north to the English Channel, including what is now the Netherlands, down the mountain ridge to the Alps, around the Black Sea, to the Caspian Sea, then dropped south, slicing through to the Red Seas just under the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and even across the northern coastal regions of Africa.  Whew!  All that land under one country’s rule, yet the birth of Christianity occurred in one, tiny kingdom under the rule of Herod that included the somewhat tiny communities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Then, in this vast expanse of the Roman Empire, a star appeared.  Almost every night, I look out at the stars and find myself awed by the clear, pristine beauty of those bright, twinkling lights in the darkened sky.  I can just stand there, frozen in awe and wonderment, and think about how God works in this enormous universe.

The star is such an important piece in the Christmas Story so I should not be surprised that it captures the Wise Men, the scholars’ attention.  Yet, in our contemporary world, the stars are scientifically explained and we seldom question anything about the stars.  On ancient days, the stars were studied and used for navigation.  There was a dependence on the stars and a change was not to be ignored.

In Brent Landua’s interpretation of the apocryphal Christian writing, Revelation of the Magi, the Magi report the star’s sighting:

. . . And each of us saw wondrous and diverse visions that were never before seen by us, but their mysteries were in these books that we were reading.  . . .  And we were afraid and shook when we saw it.  And we cannot speak about the brilliance of the star of light,  . . . And we rejoiced, and glorified and gave unmeasured thanks to the Father of heavenly majesty that it appeared in our days and we were thought worthy to see it(Accessed on December 29, 2011 at www.huffingpost.com/users/become Fan.php?of=hp blogger Brent Landau.)

Simply reading this version of the Star of Bethlehem, as we often refer to it, lifted my spirits.  These scholars, living to the east of Bethlehem, had been studying the ancient prophecies and saved their experience in a written form, too.  The skeptical side of me, no longer needs a scientific explanation.  If the ancient scholars’ faith was answered by the gift of God’s ‘star’ then I should accept the story and let my own faith grow.

In the ABC News report on Landau’s translation of the ancient text, they reported Landau’s finding about the star:

         In the “Revelation of the Magi,” Landau said, the Star of Bethlehem not only led the Wise Men, but also actually became the Christ child.

         “The cave is filled with light,” Landau said, describing the transcribed text.  “They’re kind of hesitant about this, but eventually the star . . . its light concentrates and reveals the small luminous human being…a star child, if you will. . . it’s Christ.” 

         Landau says the ancient text is a lost message from early Christians.  In this version, Landau said the most startling, and controversial, difference is what happened next in the story, when the “star child” spoke to the Magi.

         “Christ tells them, ‘This is one of many occasions on which I have appeared to the peoples of the world,’ “ Landau said.  “So this text may even by saying that there are no non-Christians religions because Christ is the revelation behind everything.”

The final piece to the story of the Eastern scholars in found in the gifts that they bring to Bethlehem.  The words are so familiar:  gold, Frankincense, and myrrh.  Yet even this part of the story has an interesting interpretation.  In the WebBible Encyclopedia, the three gifts represent the qualities or unique aspects of Christ.  The gold is for the role of king, the myrrh is representative of Christ’s death, and frankincense is incense burned in homage to God.  Another source suggests that these gifts provided the financial means for Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt.

The Christmas Story would not be complete without the story of the three wise men or scholars.  As much as we have heard the story, it is the faith of these men that brings us to Epiphany.  Regardless of the wide range of possible interpretations that color the story, the faith of the scholars supports our understanding of the coming of Christ.  We find that our seed of faith continues to grow, blossom and mature.  God’s gift of his child is a gift to us that sustains us, provides us hope, and guides us to love one another as we work to transform the world.

Dear Giving Father,

As we close the Christmas season of 2011,

Let us open up the gift of your unfailing love

For the new year 2012.

Let us experience the same faith

Of the prophets, of Mary, of Joseph,

Of the shepherds, and the scholars.

Let our faith grow so that others may hear

Our story and believe.

Let our faith grow as we continue

To learn, to worship and to serve.  –Amen

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