Far as the Curse is Found

December 24, 2008

Matthew’s account of the “magi” who visit the Chirst child has always struck me as rather awkward. After all, the men who are counted among Jesus’ early worshippers clearly enter into the story from well outside the Jewish tradition.

The greek word “magos” – which is the word that Matthew uses to describe the foreign visitors – is an occupational title that describes a particular priestly caste within the religious tradition of Zoroastrianism, a religion that is still practiced to this day. Their role – as I understand it – was to interpret the “signs” that appeared in the skies. Today, we would think of them as astrologers. However, unlike modern Western practitioners who go by the name, these astrologers were a part of a religious system that found its roots in ancient Persia.

Now we come to the awkward part. Astrology – along with numerous other “magical” practices – was expressly prohibited by the Mosaic law, a code of conduct that had governed the Jewish people for centuries.  In other words, God revealed himself within a religious tradition that is outside of the confines of the Bible. Later in the Matthew narrative, he will do the same thing a second time, coming to the magi in a dream.

It is common for Christmas narratives to water down this oddity. Some translations – and almost all stories that are based on the biblical narrative – attempt to describe the magi as “wise men” or “kings.” Almost never are they characterized as astrologers, much less priests of a foreign religion.

Yet the writer’s clear implication – that, at this crucial moment in history, God acted, and even provided guidance to those who were a part of “another” faith, and even within the practices and frameworks of that faith – ought not to be skipped over lightly.

Clearly, something remarkable has happened here. To the writer of Matthew, God has initiated the process by which all people will be drawn to him, a move that will become explicit when Jesus later instructs his disciples to make disciples of all of the nations. In the meantime, God has apparently gone ahead of them, preparing the nations for the revelation of his redemptive work.

Perhaps now, more than ever, a complete telling of the story of the magi is appropriate. Growing within our churches is a collective angst over the connections between other faiths and our own. Many of the tenants of Islam, Hinduism, and – to a lesser extent – Buddhism seem inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet, beyond question, each of those traditions have produced good people who have made the world a better place. We want to embrace those things which are good in other faiths, yet we fear compromising the integrity of our own beliefs.

Tonight, I find myself wondering whether part of the problem may be that we spend too much time looking for things that are wrong in other faiths, when we ought to be celebrating the ways God is already present and acting within them. Perhaps, if we look hard enough, we can find similar ideas, points of guiding light not unlike the Bethlehem star, in religious practices of all varieties – from the text of the Q’ran to the teachings of the Buddha to the oral traditions of the Navajo.

And if indeed the visitation to Bethlehem by these odd-looking men was a precursor to the day when the treasures of all the nations will be brought into the city of God, then – of all seasons – Christmas can become a time in which we celebrate the mystery and wonder of a God who is drawing all people – even quirky Persian astrologers – into his kingdom of love and grace.

After all, the announcement of the arrival of the Christ child was not only for those in the vicinity Bethlehem. Rather, as Isaac Watts reminds us in the lyrics of Joy to the World

He comes to make His blessings known,
        far as the curse is found.