Tag Archives: Magi

Someone is always looking for the star: Seeking with the Magi

Someone is always looking for the star. They want light from God. They are looking for salvation from the darkness they feel and the darkness pressing in on them. These seekers are always odd, since most people are just calling darkness light and having a fight if you contradict them. But quite often these odd people have stories written about them, because they find the places the star leads them.

The story of the wise men is a story about odd, light-seeking people. The prophecy of the star at the birth of Jesus is found in Numbers 24:17. The magi who were looking for Jesus knew about this prophecy. In their Persian libraries they maintained the Jewish scriptures and had access to the works of the great Jewish wise man, Daniel, who had reached the higher echelon of the profession in Babylon. So the wise men looked for the new born King of Israel because they read it in the scriptures and acted on what they read.

I want to be like one of the magi. I want to be good at seeing the signs. I want to keep looking for the places where Jesus is being born. Since they already had all the writings, I suppose the wise men could have enjoyed sitting in Babylon or somewhere in Persia reading about the interesting things that might happen in places they’d never go while  eating pomegranates after work — I could be eating M&Ms and watching the Eagles. Instead, they wanted to be on site. They wanted to see God born. If I walk around Philadelphia with their attitude, there is a good chance I will see where the light is resting too.

The Greek word for the wise men is μαγοι, (magi). It is from this word that we get our word magician. At that time Matthew was writing about the wise men who saw “his star” rise “in the east,” the boundary between those who attempted to sway the spirits and those who performed what we might call science was blurred.  For instance, early chemists were often alchemists, people trying to change one substance into another (usually into gold) by all sorts of methods, including incantations, but also including methods that we would recognize today as experimental chemistry. Similarly, these magicians from Persia who came to find Jesus could probably be referred to as scientists in a broader sort of way. People say there were three magi, but there could have been two or twenty-five. There were three gifts mentioned in the account in Matthew, however.

The star mentioned in Numbers 24 was prophesied by an unusual character, called Balaam. Balaam seems to have been a sort of traveling soothsayer, and could be considered a distant professional relative of the magi who came to Jesus’ house. He was based at Pethor, which is not only near the River Euphrates, but is also close to Babylon. Back in the day, Balaam was contracted by the King of Moab, Balak, to curse the Israelites. The Israelites were moving through Moabite territory on their long journey to the Promised Land and the king wanted them to keep moving. The Israelites were not going to settle in Moab, so the Moabites had the opportunity, as had the Edomites and Amorites before them, to show hospitality and enable them to go on their way. But, like the others, the Moabites displeased God, only they did it by hiring Balaam. The account of what happened to Balaam — how he was commissioned, how he was warned about his behavior by God, how God rebuked him by making his donkey talk, and how every attempt he made to curse the Israelites simply led to them being blessed — can be found in Numbers 22 through 24. In one of Balaam’s attempts to curse the Israelites, he ended up speaking the prophecy the wise men learned:

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. (Numbers 24:17 KJV)

In one sense, the prophecy applies to Israel itself, particularly with reference to David’s conquest of the Moabites. But the concept of the scepter, a symbol of kingship, refers not only to David, but to David’s greater son, and refers back to Genesis:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; And to Him shall be the obedience of the people. (Genesis 49:10 KJV)

This passage from Genesis refers to the coming Messiah, to be descended from Judah. By inference, we can say that Numbers 24:17 also refers to the coming Messiah. The wise men seeking the newborn king probably knew about Balaam’s oracle. Maybe Daniel himself made the connection for them, since he also prophesied about the Messiah (Daniel 9:25-26).

More than how they arrived at their conclusions, I am impressed by how the magi applied their wisdom. They not only knew that the star and their studies meant something, they knew what to do. Then they did it. They took off for the place the light led. In a very real sense, they went to attend to the birth. That’s the kind of knowledge I want. The world does not need more people eager to fight for their thinking to be ascendant. But the world does need more people who are eager to see what God is doing and cooperate with what is being created. The wise men did not know if they could prove their point. But the proof they already had pointed them in the right direction. They had the courage to take their provisional knowledge on the road and to let their wisdom be subject to change. Such knowledge requires trust in God, but they went with it.

I want to be like the magi. I want to attend the births. I want to be in the places the light is breaking in and breaking out. I want to follow the Savior even if that sometimes means I don’t know exactly where I am going.

People need to be saved; everything I learn keeps pointing to that reality. They are being enslaved and trained by godless powers or by powers taking the place of God. But they are seeking and I can cooperate with what is being born in them. What shall we do?

1) Believe that the Savior will be born. That begins with believing Jesus, God-with-us, was born, of course. But there are many poor places in Philly right now where Jesus is being born, just like John says. John’s nativity story skips the history and goes straight for the wisdom: Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—  children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:12-13).

2) Go find out where the Savior is being born. So often we try to create a birth moment, or we think we are sent to impregnate every moment. We call that being missional, as if we were the actual incarnation, not just carrying the Spirit of God with us. We are important, but we can get a bit grandiose. The wise men were more likely to have been raggedy, unaccepted-by-the-establishment types, certainly not like three medieval European kings, searching back alleys and stables for something the powers were trying to kill. Rather than assuming we are supposed to find time in our busy schedules to keep the world filled with light, I think it is a better ambition to go find where the birth happening and be wise enough to assist with the birth.

3) Give your treasure for what is prospectively going to happen. Again, so often we are saving our treasure to apply the grand strategy we feel responsible to actualize. We hoard our stuff as if we know what’s coming. Or at least we hoard our stuff because we are afraid we know what is coming. The wise men had some valuable stuff to invest in a baby. Joseph probably used it for the family’s escape to Egypt. No money invested in God’s dream is wasted. Nothing you give to assist in the birth of Jesus goes unused. Either your heart gets better or the light gets brighter. Either your own chains get loosened or someone else stays out of spiritual or physical jail. Someone is always looking for the star. Help them.

Three magi who are coming to Jesus presently

Adoration of the Magi — Mantegna 1462

The first thing I remember reciting in a Christmas play when I was the perfect Sunday school child from that nonChristian family was the story of the magi in Matthew 2 in the KJV. “When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him….”  The story has “troubled me” in a good way ever since. When I was becoming a full-on Christian in college, my professor gave me an impossible solo movement of a song to sing in a competition that recited the same thing. “And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.The answer to me then, and now, “He is born in you and all around you; look at the signs.”

I feel a special admiration for the mysterious visitors from the East who found Mary and Joseph and offered gifts to the newborn king. I still am thrilled to see the star “standing over where the young child is.”

I realized this week that I have heard rather improbable stories from three magi in my own life right now. I want to tell you about them, like Matthew wanted to tell the story about the first magi who sought out Jesus. My comrades are seeking the newborn king and offering treasures in their own ways; they are writing the nativity story for 2012.

Howard was out on the street yesterday with his well-worn sign that says, “Tell me your story.” He got rained on and didn’t get too many takers so he started back down Broad St. feeling a bit discouraged. Then he met the pastor of Isaiah Beard’s church at 18th and Federal who told him all about the life of an inner city pastor of a small church. The man was so encouraging that Howard’s spirit was lifted. Then he met a woman who was a recovering meth addict who was on her way to Circle Thrift. Her longsuffering mother had told her to go to “Circle church.” Howard said he would accompany her. “When he saw the star, he rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

Ben told a story in the PM when he spoke on the second Sunday of Advent that people are still talking about.  He was on the job as a chaplain at Jefferson Hospital when a woman came to give birth in a very high-risk situation. The doctors had very little hope she would survive the process. But he and the family prayed that she would survive her mysterious neurological event when the doctors took the baby by c-section. Her mother and grandmother in particular demanded that God answer their prayer: “We declare it done in your name, Lord.” He longed with all his heart that the baby would live and the family would rejoice. The baby was delivered healthy and he got to meet the father in the nursery before he left for the day. But he couldn’t leave the event at work; he texted his colleague to find out about the mother. The reply read, “She’s fine” – even though the doctors had said she would die. It was a miracle. “He departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

I was at the Christmas gathering for our main leaders, the BW Cell Leaders and Apprentices. I had a rare time to talk with Maggie in the kitchen as we ate morsels from the mountain of food surrounding us. We got into a discussion about our surprising mutual study of how discoveries in genetics move us to evangelize. How might it be possible that what we believe might actual work back into our genetic development? The research seems to validate that the process of mentalizing actually changes our brain chemistry and neurological formation, even working its way into our DNA. Maggie’s the scientist, the postmodern magi imagining new research projects. It was amazing that she should come from the far reaches of science where she is pointedly and directly told to abandon her faith lest it ruin her career and still bubble over with enthusiasm for science and Jesus right in my kitchen!  “When she was come into the house, she saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when she had opened her treasure, she presented unto him her gifts.”

The story of the birth of Jesus is a living story. The magi still come to the manger. He is born in you and all around you; look at the signs.


Whether you stole the baby or are searching for the perp

One year there were a rash of thefts involving the baby Jesus. I don’t think they ever found the one that was taken from the crèche on Independence Mall.  I heard of one baby Jesus stolen in the Northeast by an eighteen year old girl who had an apartment overlooking the scene of the manger. I guess she was just mean enough to do it. Or maybe she was a young, deluded girl who just wanted a baby. As it turned out, the police, on the other end of the social scale, also ended up looking for Jesus. Maybe they were mean as they did it. Or maybe they just wanted to figure out what happened. Regardless, it is the season of looking for Jesus.

Locals like us

This next Sunday, our Advent pilgrimage is focused on the people in the nativity story who best represent most of us: the shepherds and wise men. Someplace along the spectrum of low-life shepherds to high-class wise men, you probably fit in. I also think that all of us have an inner shepherd and an inner wise man searching for Jesus — or needing to.

The shepherds get just a few lines in Luke, but their amazing experience gets all the imagination of the carol writers poured on them. That is probably because we all relate to them so well.

The Adoration of the Shepherds — El Greco

The shepherds were chosen from among the locals. I’m not sure how that occurred; maybe  the angels just happened upon people who were still up in the middle of the night. It is possible that the angel just had a prepared speech to give to whoever he met: “I bring you tidings of great joy, earthling.” But it sounds like these certain poor shepherds might have been selected.  I think the angel was actually being sensitive, like he noticed that the shepherds were looking over their shoulders wondering who the angel was really coming to meet, since they were normally among the invisible poor. That’s why he said, “No, don’t be afraid. I’m talking to you. I bring you good news of great joy, good news for everyone, you included. Go to Bethlehem and you’ll see what I’m talking about. “ Then the heavens erupted because this moment must be an especially great thing for heaven to see. The poor receive the love and justice they’ve been missing. A person trampled back into dust has new life breathed into them. This is what angels live for: “Glory to God! This is it! Life. Light. Joy.” It was nuts.

This is where I love to come into the story, along with all the artists. If you get what is going on, you must be eager to show up with your inner shepherd, out in the dark, out alone on a hill, out in the cold, poor in some way, not getting what you need in some way, ragged, mistreated, unnoticed. And the angel comes to you and says for God, “I choose you. Here is my message for you — needy, needy you.” I don’t know if we ever quite fully improve on this, no matter how many Advents we experience. We search out of our darkness. The light terrifies us — but it shows us the way out. We grope through the hills to find that it was just as we were told, again, but we, again, may not have believed it fully before we got there, again.

Foreigners like us

As for the wise men, the magi (I’m not sure how they got to be three kings except that they came equipped with treasure),  they are another story altogether. I think they get less songs and less art because they are from the mysterious places of high finance and deep learning. Plus, they are foreigners to Matthew, who is writing the story. They represent the “gentiles,” people who are called from far away.

The Adoration of the Magi – El Greco

Maybe the magi were Persian astrologers. However Mary or Joseph told the story, I am not sure they really knew. When they met them they were probably just glad to get some gold and other things to sell. But we come to find out that these men felt comfortable in King Herod’s court and went there first. And they had the means to travel from the East, across the desert, presumably, where they were getting directions from stars coming up in the West.

We also come into the story with our inner magi needing to get involved, our inner wise person, our king or queen self. We are brilliant, and God calls us in our brilliance just like he called these brilliant guys. We also search out of our light. The lack of a guiding star terrifies us and the presence of one brings us joy. We use our skills to get to some place where we can worship, like all our knowledge and skills told us we should. But we have to get there before we can choose to kneel.

I admit that I resent the way the Augustinian protestants made such an overwhelming emphasis on our dirty shepherd selves. They specialized in convincing us that we are terrible so we would recognize our need for Jesus.  They kind of stopped us from appealing to the best in everyone. It appears that Jesus draws the best of the Persians across the desert to worship him. They figured it out. Their astrology even led them to Jesus! Honest seekers after God find a lot of ways to get there. We are all shepherds, but we are all magi, too. We’ve got stuff, we are hopeful, we are ready to adventure. We are all these good things. And if we are not self-sufficient as a result of having them, and we respond to the revelation that is right in front of us — in our law studies, in sociology, in biology, in architecture, if we are searching there, we end up at the proper place to present our treasure.

Advent is the time of year when we celebrate this wonderful both/and:

  • God in flesh.
  • God present and future.
  • Ourselves as shepherds and magi at the manger.
  • Being chosen and choosing.

There are a lot of places to fit ourselves into the story, aren’t there?  It is “Peace on Earth! Good will to all!” If you are so low that you stole the baby, Jesus will likely influence your apartment. If you angrily searched high and low for the perp who stole the baby, at least the baby has a chance to preoccupy your thoughts.

God chose you where you are, especially if you are shepherdy. God called you from as far away as you have ever been, especially calling all your brilliance into its true service. Each of us is in the story. For us, too, it is “Come and see. Come and worship.”