January 2, 2011

Saying Yes to God with the Magi

This is the last of the series stated in Advent. We've been looking at those who said 'Yes' when God called them to some life changing adventure. Today we are looking at the Wise Men.


Epiphany is celebrated on Jan. 6 as the arrival of the Magi-the Wise Men. It is also the 12th day of Christmas for those who hold the old tradition of counting the ’12 days’ as the first days of the Christmas season, not as a countdown to Christmas day. A couple of years ago my blog topic after Christmas was the meaning of the 12 days.

Back to the Wise Men. They are traditionally Magi from Persia who studied the writings of the Hebrew prophets, esp. Daniel. During the time when the leadership of Israel was exiled to Babylon, Daniel came into favor in the court. You can read all about that in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. Magi were priests of the cult of Zoroaster which involved studying the stars and interpreting their message. This eventually led to astrology as we know it and magic.

The story of the Wise Men is only found in Matthew 2:1-12. Having traveled over 700 miles, the men arrive in Judea. Without knowing it they are fulfilling the word in Isaiah 60:1-3: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” For a brief, fatal moment they forget the words of the prophets and the leading of the star. Many commentators have wondered why these intelligent men decided to go to the capital and ignore the star they had followed so far. Some postulate it was cloudy and they lost their way. Perhaps it seemed logical to seek a king in Jerusalem and they forgot to check with God and follow the star. In my book Mary, My Love, the stop in Jerusalem was precipitated by an argument,* but maybe it was simply that Jerusalem was on the road they were following and the Magi were just passing through.

At any rate, according to Matthew, they enter Jerusalem “asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” As we saw last week, this doesn’t sit well with Herod who “was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.” Herod learns that prophecy identifies Bethlehem. “you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” You can imagine that this news doesn’t make the king happy. He pretends interest however, and tells the Magi, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

The Magi head to Bethlehem, only a few miles south of Jerusalem. “There, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” It is from the three gifts that we get our tradition of three Wise Men. You’ll notice there is not any mention of the number of Magi in the citation. After their brief visit, the men, “warned in a dream not to return to Herod…left for their own country by another road.” Joseph takes his family and flees to Egypt “and remained there until the death of Herod.”

The Magi said 'yes' to God. Their study of the Hebrew scriptures and of astrology helped them identify the signs that matched the prophecies. Together with Joseph they join the long line of those Michael Card calls Pilgrims to the City of God. We too are part of that long line of travelers. Like the Magi,
“…sometimes we run by the power of His might,
On our own at the best we can plod…
But we are not just homeless prodigals here
Because we have someplace to go
What we hopefully look for is just beyond sight
We are pilgrims to the city of God.”

Card is referencing Hebrews 11:13 that says, “All of [the pioneers of faith] died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth…”

Amid the Christmas and New Year’s bustle and parties and resolutions, I can forget that it is all transitory and that “God has prepared [for us] a city” so that we will not always be pilgrims. The Magi return to Babylon. Joseph and his family eventually return from Egypt. Our journey of faith will end someday in “the City of the Great King,” as Card sings. Along the way, we are called to act more and more in the “power of His might.” As 2011 dawns, what can I do to “follow the One who holds out a cross and a crown”?

In my January newsletter (http://www.cynthiadavisauthor.com/), I quote Thomas Merton who offers some guidance on how we can do our best:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Like the Magi, we have to step out on the road. With them, we may make mistakes and ask the wrong questions of the wrong people, but in the end, God will triumph. Even though "we travel a dark road that has but one Light" we will find our way because that Light is the "true light that enlightens everyone." (John 1:9) If you are still working on your 'Advent box', you might want to add a birthday candle or other symbol to remind you of that Light we are to follow.


Next week, I’ll start a new series that will take us to Lent. I hope you’ll stop back.

*(excerpt from Mary, My Love, by Cynthia Davis (c) 2010)

Balthazar bowed low to me. “Thank you, Joseph for your welcome. We followed the sign from God to your door. See the star is setting.” I looked in the direction the man pointed. Low and brilliant in the dark sky hung a star unnoticed before. “Now we have seen the child for ourselves and can return to our home in peace.”


After another low bow, the man joined Melchior by the gate. Caspar lingered at my side. He seemed to be deciding whether or not to speak.


At last he nodded decisively. “We may have brought danger with us.” The young man lowered his head almost in shame. Guiltily he glanced toward his comrades.


I waited, wondering what the man meant.


“When we reached the border of Judea clouds hid the star from us. We argued.” He rubbed his brow in distress. “I insisted that the one we sought would be a prince and must be found in Jerusalem in the royal palace.”


I felt my heart lurch.


Slowly he confessed, “Despite their wise counsel to wait for the clouds to clear and follow the star, I insisted on proceeding to the capital. ‘Where else would a prince of the house of David be born?’ My foolish words will haunt me forever.” Looking toward his waiting companions, the young man seemed to draw courage. “We reached Herod’s palace. ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ My question sent courtiers scurrying, I must admit. We were ushered into the king’s throne room. In that moment I knew how wrong I had been. We were in the presence of sheer evil. Herod questioned us closely.”


The man paused to remove his turban and run fingers through thick curls. Then he stood turning the head covering in his hands.


Caspar’s eyes begged for understanding when he raised them to mine. “After a while the king pretended to be interested in our talk of a promised redeemer. He sent for several of the priests and scribes. One old man had an immediate answer to the question ‘Where will Messiah be born?’ He quoted one of your prophets and named Bethlehem. Herod turned to us then, ‘Behold your answer, Magi. Seek for this child and bring me word that I may worship him.’ He does not plan homage but harm.”


Some inarticulate sound came from my throat.


“We will not return to Herod,” the young Magi assured me, “but that may not do anything more than delay the king slightly.”


“Yes.” The strangled word barely sounded like my voice. “Thank you.”


“May the One God who is Light protect you and your family.”


Caspar bowed low to me. The last I saw of the Magi was three shadows moving up the street behind Elam. I stared for a long time at the glowing star low on the horizon.

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