The Epiphany story is indeed disturbing. For it reveals the world of Jesus as one in which power and politics are very much not to be trusted: a world in fact of great savagery, in which violence is horribly inflicted upon the weak, the small, and the most vulnerable; a world in which deception and flight are often essential, simply for survival. It is also remarkable, coming as it does from the scriptural reflection and creative imagination of the Gospel writer Matthew. For the major figures in today’s Gospel story are not only not Jews, but Gentiles, they are also distinctly pagan. Take another look at the original Greek text to see what I mean. For the Greek word traditionally translated as ‘wise men’ is μάγοι, or, in English, magi. Note well: the Gospel text does not say they were kings, nor that there were three of them, nor that they were men, nor even that they were wise. Each of those things has either been derived by Christian tradition from other scriptures with possible reference (such as Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 which we also have in our lectionary today), or they have simply, mistakenly, been assumed. This does not mean to say that we should give up on all the traditional customs which have been derived from this textual misreading. It does mean however that we need to pay attention to what they so easily conceal.
The shocking reality of the magi is that the best translation of the Greek word μάγοι may actually be the very similar English word magicians. No wonder some concerned biblical translations and Christian traditions have used ‘wise men’ instead! Using ‘three kings’, though even more incorrect, sounds even better. It distances us from the scandalous nature of the μάγοi, as magicians, astrologers, wizards, sorcerers. They were a type of people elsewhere warned against in the Bible. Indeed, in the Acts of the Apostles, the same word, in the singular, μάγοv, is used in describing Elymas, the sorcerer, who opposed Paul and the gospel. The magi are thus astonishing scriptural characters. Most probably, as the great ancient Greek historian Herodotus and other reliable sources attest, they were part of the Median tribe from the north-west of modern day Iran, part of a sacred caste or priesthood, which conformed to ancient Persian religion whilst keeping some of their old beliefs, and being forerunners of what we today call the Zoroastrian religion. It was through their astrological or magical calculations, that they would have taken particular interest in the movement of the stars.
Oh dear! As if the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel was not challenging enough with the genealogy of Jesus including highly dubious women and David’s lust for Bathsheba, together with Joseph’s need to cope with Mary’s disgraceful pregnant condition. Immediately afterwards we have the arrival of these shocking magicians, Herod’s ‘slaughter of the innocents’ and the holy family becoming asylum seekers. If you didn’t already grasp the message in chapter one, the Gospel writer is telling us, wake up now - God is not comfortable or respectable as we might like God to be: God is in reality a shocker and he works through often quite shocking people!
So do we then really see the star and hear the story of the Epiphany? They are not tame and sentimental, but challenging and uncomfortable. The message of Christmas and Epiphany comes to us, literally, out of the mouths of babes, refugees, aliens in the land and strange people of other faith. It tells us that God is not the God of the Herods or imperial lackeys of this world, of the expected and the powerful, or the conventionally religious and respectable. The God of Jesus Christ is the God of the humble and meek, of those who have mercy amid the terrors of this world, and of those who recognise light and truth and compassion wherever it is to be found, whatever religious or cultural background they may possess. For God is a God beyond all existing divisions, and is bringing a new world into being, marked by the primacy of love, justice and mercy. This, of course, is Jesus' message, throughout his life, and embodied in his life, in his openness to the poor and the outcast and those of like spirit in and beyond the traditional limits of faith. This is to be the guiding star for us to follow: Matthew spells it out for us right at the start.
As David Lose has observed, the Christmas and Epiphany star and story are thus not really so much for children, or the child within us all, as they are for adults. They are given to us to guide us, to assure us that God is present in the worst that human beings can do to others and in the most surprising and even shocking of people and places. As the poet Denise Levertov wrote in her poem “On the Mystery of the Incarnation”:
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart.’
Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, ‘we are all in the gutter, but some are looking at the stars.’
May God’s light so open our eyes and our hearts now and always, Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for Epiphany 1, Year B, 1 January 2017