It is a sad irony. Has the epiphany story lost its impact? Has the journey of the Magi become a farce? Has it lost its meaning after so many years of derision, commercialization and ridicule? I am starting to think that is the case. That is sad because the epiphany narrative is supposed to inspire an openness to dramatic change and new beginnings.
I can think of so many examples of the wise men being fodder for comedic skits and satire. My favourite is Monty Phyton’s depiction in the Life of Brian of
the three wise men arriving in Bethlehem to pay homge to the baby Jesus and give their gold, frankincense and myrrh to Mary only to realize they went to
wrong house. I grew up in the 1970’s watching re-runs of Monty Phyton’s Flying Circus. That group of writers deliciously took down all the great institutions of our times including the Church. Their unique brand of satire and comedy laid bear a lot of the shallowness of church teachings.
That is just as relevant today. So many churches still promote the “myths” of the nativity scene. Who exactly were these distant travellers? Well, that is room for speculation. The general consensus amongst scholars is that they were Persians who cultivated astronomy. They would have been the earliest examples medicine practitioners. Most likely they were Zoroastrian priests. That is a monotheistic religion of modern day Iran. It emerged 6th century Persian empire and greatly influenced Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Typically around Christmas, many Christians fume about the commercialization of the holiday. Can we blame the magi for kickstarting this with their gifts? Notice the magi brought gifts of immense value, what was precious to themselves. Nowadays, I opt for “convenient” gifts- shopping online and buying gift cards. This year Denese and I bought our kids clothes because underwear, socks and new winter coats are not high on their gift list although still kind of important. But
I can’t claim any moral high ground about giving gifts; the kids also got cash that will, no doubt, be spent on something digital and electronic.
Maybe we all have become de-sensitized to the harder edges of the Christmas story and the journey of the Magi. Starting to hear Christmas carols on the radio in November does seem to diminish the critique that is embedded in the text. We forget about King Herod, conspiring with the chief priests and scribes, who
wanted to kill this infant child named Jesus. We forget about the political times when all of this took place. Herod the Great ruled when Jesus was born.
But it was Herod Antipas, his son, who reigned when Jesus was crucified. There also was Herod Archaelaus, Herod Philip, and not one but two Herod Agrippas in the Bible! But really, Herod, Herod, and Herod are the same guy. All were egotistical, insecure, petty potentates, in bed with the Romans, and clueless
Whoever these wise men were, they were wise enough to see the signs of King Herod’s treachery. For me the most important phrase in the text is the tantalizing ending: “They left for their own country by another road” (verse 12). Were they warned? Of course. But there is some mystery here—that once you have met the Christ child, you do not keep plodding along the same old pathways. It is a new day, a new road. T.S. Eliot ended his poem about the magi with “We returned to our places … but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” Jesus does not make my life easier or more comfortable but he definitely makes us wiser.