Thursday, January 6, 2022


Adoration of the Magi by El Greco, 1568, 
Museo SoumayaMexico City

 When you have an "epiphany" today, it usually means "a great discovery." But it once exclusively meant the discovery of the "King of the Jews" by a gang of travelers called "magi" or wise men. On January 6, Christians celebrate the original meaning, likewise a great discovery to those magi, who knew what they were looking for.

The Gospel of Matthew describes them as astrologers with extraordinary insight into the stars and history. They show up in Jerusalem asking, "Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?" They frightened both King Herod and the city of Jerusalem.  Imagine a parade of pagan scientists, with a prediction that frightened the citizens of Jerusalem which set off a study of the scriptures and revealed Bethlehem as the likely birthplace of the prophesied king.

These obscure magi show up in the second chapter of Matthew, create a local disturbance with their prophecies, proceed to Bethlehem, have their joyful epiphany, present their precious gifts, and before the chapter is half over, "left for their own country by another road." New Testament scholar Dr. Amy-Jill Levine points out that the Greek word for "road" (hodos), in this case, is the same word used in the expression which described the early Christians: "people of the way (hodos)."  The term is rare in the New Testament, notes Levine, suggesting the magi might be compared to early disciples each with their own epiphanies.

Perhaps New Testament scholars make too much of Greek words or the significance of obscure wise men.  Yet the church has honored them with a holiday, and the Gospel writer of Matthew has used their visit to confirm the prophecy of a messianic king. It all seems like religious hype for these mysterious figures who were not, in fact, kings, but rather the early version of scientists, using superstitious ideas of the stars and Eastern sacred texts to investigate a prophesied king.

We have to remember that Matthew's Gospel had no shepherds or women like Mary and Elizabeth (found only in Luke) to proclaim the birth of the coming king. The writer had only the account of the dream of an angel by the earthly father, Joseph, and the visit of the foreign visitors, to mark the birth of Jesus.  The alien walk-on characters elevated the birth of Jesus with a message from abroad: "Where is he born King of the Jews?" Their message was not founded on the Law and the Prophets.

What this Gospel offers us is a Gentile or outside world perspective of the Birth. The magi came from the East, not any specific or venerated land. Their first question: Where is the child born king of the Jews? The actual location of Bethlehem was derived from the study of the local priests and scribes.  The "star of wonder" had only gotten them as far as Jerusalem. Now they had to rely on the local "wise men" to pinpoint Bethlehem as the prime location.

The Anglican poet T.S. Eliot, in his poem "The Journey of the Magi," removes any romance of the pilgrim journey of the wise men, describing instead the hardship of ancient traveling and the lingering doubts that the signs read by the Magi could be mistaken.  He describes the wise men as devoted in their persistence to find the foreshadowed "king of the Jews."

A hard time we had of it. 

At the end we preferred to travel all night 

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying 

That this was all folly.

Matthew says, "[T]hey knelt down and paid him homage." Why would they even care about a king of this western Roman colony? They opened their chest of valuables to present gifts to a child king, more significant than anyone could imagine. These foreign visitors must have understood more than the Jewish scholars did themselves.

Matthew's story has cosmopolitan significance. Without the wise men, it would be one birth in a thousand, ignored by Herod and the intelligentsia of Jerusalem. In the next scene the Holy Family is fleeing Herod's executions, journeying to Egypt.  They continue to be undistinguished characters in the history of Israel, while their chief witnesses (the wise men)  disappear into the East.

"And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another way" (Matt 2:12).  Somehow these travelers made contact with the divine. They saw something unique in Jesus and heard something crucial in their dreams.  They saw the threat this baby presented to the local authorities, but more than that, they saw that this baby's survival was crucial. They had a true epiphany, yet had the insight to keep it to themselves. They believed this baby would be transformative, not only to Jewish history, but all history.

Eliot's poem is an imaginary sequel to the Epiphany. He describes it from the reflections of one of the magi, one man recalling the journey of long ago.

. . . were we led all that way for Birth or Death?

There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt.

I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

What had died in the heart of this one witness to the birth of Jesus, as he reflected on his journey to find the "king of the Jews"? What is T.S. Eliot imagining as the impact of this Epiphany, which was a birthday party of a future king?  The reader of his poem wonders about the sad revelation, something the magi must have regretted in retrospect. Eliot, however, connects death and birth together in his poem. The musing wise man says:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

A "dispensation," as Eliot uses it, is "a political or religious system that operates in a country at a particular time"  What the magus (wise man) realized was that Jesus had changed the system of multiple, vengeful gods into a singular, benevolent God that cared about the Creation. He calls his countrymen "alien people" because they cling to old mythologies about the nature of the gods.  He now longs for another epiphany in the sense of deeper understanding of God and the messiah-king God sent to transform the world. "[A]nother death" would then allow a revelation of the kind of God Jesus represented.

Eliot's imagined transformation of this wise man addresses our need to know what happened to them.  Their role in Matthew is both fleeting and consequential. We have tried to elevate them with famous hymns ("We Three Kings") and the imagined status as kings, but we really know much less about them than our traditions suppose.

Still we understand that they had an "epiphany," (a moment when death and birth were seen together?), and they heard the divine warning to take a different path home.  It all resulted from their lifetime of study, a determined journey, and a wise consultation with scholars.  Preparation, determination, and timely collaboration.  The shrewd journey to epiphany and the safe route home.

Text of the entire poem follows;

Journey of the Magi

by T. S. Eliot
‘A cold coming we had of it 
Just the worst time of the year 
For a journey, and such a journey: 
The ways deep and the weather sharp, 
The very dead of winter.’ 
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, 
Lying down in the melting snow. 
There were times we regretted 
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces 
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.10
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling 
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women, 
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, 
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly  
And the villages dirty and charging high prices: 
A hard time we had of it. 
At the end we preferred to travel all night 
Sleeping in snatches, 
With the voices singing in our ears, saying 
That this was all folly.20
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, 
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; 
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, 
And three trees on the low sky, 
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. 
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, 
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, 
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins. 
But there was no information, and so we continued30
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon 
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory. 
All this was a long time ago, I remember 
And I would do it again, but set down 
This set down 
This: were we led all that way for 
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, 
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, 
But had thought they were different; this Birth was 
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.40
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms 
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation 
With an alien people clutching their gods. 
I should be glad of another death
Bill Tucker

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