Saturday, January 7, 2017

Year A, Epiphany, "Where are the Wise Men?"

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen

This morning I’d like to begin by sharing with you an article written by Father Matthew Attia of the Eastern Orthodox Church:

“Who are the Magi? A Christian Orthodox Concept

A response to the comments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury

Father Matthew Attia

“Those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore thee.”

The comments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the Magi and Star of Bethlehem warrant a careful response as they challenge the authenticity of the Christian Scriptures.

In the nativity account according to the Gospel of Matthew we read that when Christ was born there appeared an overwhelmingly bright star in the east. While off in the distance, wise men from the East, of Magi, notice the star and begin to follow it towards Jerusalem.

The visit of the Magi is the subject of many legends, many emanating from the Western world. What then is the true account of this visitation?

The Biblical account of the Magi appears only in the Gospel of Matthew: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is He who was born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship him.’” (Matthew 2:1-2).

The word Magi comes from the Greek word magoi, meaning ‘astrologer’ or ‘magician’. By the time of the birth of Christ, the Magi were an already well-established and ancient upper class of people from the Persian Empire in today’s northern Iran. The Magi were pagan priests, specializing in astrology and the interpretation of dreams. Skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science, they became the scholars of Persian society. The Holy Fathers held the tradition that the Magi, although pagans, were deeply religious priest-philosophers who collected wisdom from wherever they could get it.

Because the Magi had direct contact with those Hebrews who remained in the East following the Babylonian captivity, they would have surely been familiar with their prophecies of a Saviour King, and especially the words of the Mesopotamian prophet Balaam which we read in Numbers 24:17: “You have filled the stargazers with joy, O Lord. They knew the hidden meaning of the Prophet Balaam’s words: “You have made the star of Jacob to rise.”

Although they were not ‘kings’ as perceived by western legends, the Magi were regarded as men of aristocratic rank even in Jerusalem, which is made apparent by their easy access to King Herod’s court. As we read in the Gospel of Matthew, Herod the Great, known for his cruelty, summoned the Magi because their inquiries into the birth aroused his jealousy, and Herod wanted to use them to locate Christ in order that he may have Him killed. After leaving Herod, the star once again appears to the Magi, as we read: “…the star, which they had seen in the East, went before them, until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” (Matthew 2:9).

Following the star again, the Magi arrive in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the newborn King. Matthew writes in his gospel: “…and going into the house they saw the child with Mary His mother and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11). St. Matthew does not mention the names of the Magi, but through the Holy Tradition of the Church we know them as Saints Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They were baptized into the Christian faith many years later by the Apostle Thomas, who was on his way to preach the Gospel in India. Their relics were brought from Persia to Constantinople in the fourth century by St. Helen (the mother of Emperor Constantine), then were transferred in the fifth century to Milan and then, finally in 1146 to Cologne Cathedral in Germany where they remain today.

The number and types of gifts bought to Christ by the Magi are not coincidental. Perhaps the three were a type of the Holy Trinity; or symbolize the triune nature of Christ’s ministry; prophetic, royal and priestly; or perhaps it is an expression of the three parts of the nature of man; spirit, soul and body. The significance of the gifts themselves bears mentioning, as gold is fit to offer a king, and Christ’s natures are revealed in the offering of frankincense fit to offer God, and myrrh, for God who is to suffer and die.

The Star of Bethlehem

What of the star itself? Many attempts have been made by scholars to give some sort of scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. Indeed, there is substantial historic and scientific evidence of an unusual celestial event at the approximate time of the birth of Christ, yet even this would not explain the behaviour of the star as described by the Holy Scriptures. Of course, to the Church there is a more mystical approach.

The Holy Fathers tell us that this star can be compared to the miraculous pillar of fire, which stood in the camp by night during Israel’s exodus, or the light from heaven, which overwhelmed Saul on his way to Damascus. St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on the second chapter of Matthew, says God called the wise men by the things that are familiar to them, for being astrologers they were naturally astonished at such a large star. He says that God, for the salvation of those in error, allowed Himself to be served by astrologers, normally used to serve the devil, so that He might gently draw the Magi away from their customs and lead them toward a higher wisdom.

St. Maximos the Confessor says that when the intellect is illumined by the infinite Light of God it becomes insensible to everything made by Him, just as the eye becomes insensitive to the stars when the sun rises. The Magi did not just drop off their gifts and leave, for they left from the presence of Christ as men forever changed by their experience. Their superior intellect and knowledge was confounded by the presence of a little child born under the humblest circumstances.

In keeping this great Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, we must receive this Light with joy, not putting it away at the end of the season, but rather let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16).”

There are two parts of the Tradition regarding the Wise Men that were new to me:

1. First, that tradition records that they were eventually baptized by the apostle Thomas as he traveled East to India; and

2. That the remains of the Wise Men have been interred, according to the tradition, in the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.

Similar Traditions in the Orthodox Church identify The Shepherd’s Field in Beit Sahour, a location just outside of Bethlehem, as the place where the Shepherds were watching their sheep on the night of Jesus’ birth.

I quote from the website of the Church in Beit Sahour:

“This is where tradition indicates the spot where the "Shepherds kept watch" (Luke 2: 8). On the night that Christ was born, Archangel Gabriel spoke to them and they heard the angelic proclamation "Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth and good will toward men" (Luke 2: 14). The site is also well known for its ancient Olive Trees that date back to the time before Jesus’s birth; tradition holds that two of these trees mark the location where Kind David wrote many of his Psalms.”

On the property there is a Church, Constructed by the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena, out of the cave where the shepherds heard the angel’s message. Again I quote:

“Tradition states that three of the shepherds to whom the angel announced the birth of Christ were buried in the west side of the Cave Church and their tomb and bones are still visible to this day. Today, only the crypt of the church remains.”

What do we make of these “holy Traditions” of the Church?

Did you realize that not only do we hear about the shepherds and the wise men in the nativity stories in the Gospel, but that the Church has claimed, through the holy Traditions, that it knows where these individuals were buried?

I have to admit, that for much of my life I’ve viewed such traditions with a healthy amount of skepticism.

I tended to believe that the attribution of certain places in the Holy Land as THE SPOT where certain events took place, was the result of a pious and well intended determination of people such as Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, but without any assurance of historical accuracy.

Do we actually know where the events of Jesus’ life took place?

Or did the Church simply designate a place to remember those events?

Part of this skepticism comes into Biblical Scholarship, where it is not uncommon to focus on the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth as stories told to make a theological point about the nature of Jesus, not to record the actual history surrounding Jesus’ birth.

One of the reasons for this is that of the four Gospels:

· Mark makes no mention of the Nativity of Jesus;

· Luke talks about Mary and the Shepherds, but not the wise men;

· Matthew talks about the Wise Men but not Mary and the Shepherds;

· And John talks about the “Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us” but doesn’t mention any of the specifics, no shepherds, no wise men, in fact no mention of either Mary or Joseph.

If these were actual historical events wouldn’t the Evangelists have shared a much more common story regarding them?

Jesus’ death and resurrection are recorded by all four evangelists in a very similar fashion, though there are differences there as well. But at least all four evangelists saw fit to include the death and resurrection of Jesus in their accounts.


The older I get, though, the less skeptical I have become.

First, regarding tradition:

I have had two experiences that have changed my view about how people can preserve and pass on traditions to subsequent generations.

First, I met a man from Nigeria, and listened to him telling the oral tradition of his family, going back thousands of years. Oral cultures are different from our own.

Secondly, when I’ve visited Russia, I was again amazed at how everyone there was able to recall their history and tell the story of their people.

Having had those experiences, I’ve come to appreciate the integrity of the “holy Traditions” of the Church much more. These are not just mythological tales.

What is the point of all this?

That the incarnation of Jesus, his birth, and all the events surrounding it, were as real and tangible as you and I sitting here today. Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, where the child was born. Shepherds welcomed Jesus’ birth, and they were known to the early church, their graves noted and remembered. Wise men came from the East and became part of the Church.

That God became flesh and dwelt among us is not just a theological statement, which people of faith believe.

It was a historical fact.

And there were witnesses. Mary. Joseph. Some lowly Shepherds. And Wise Men from the East.

But even more tangible, and historical, than all of that, is the love of God that made it all possible.

Love is not a theory, or theological concept.

Love is a tangible historical reality that we experience.

And it was because God so loved us, that he sent his Son into our World, full of grace and truth.

Jesus. Born. Lived. Died. And rose again. Historical events that point to one thing.

God’s love for you.


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