Today we are observing the Feast of the Epiphany, the commemoration of the visit of the Magi, the Wise Men, to Jesus in Bethlehem. Let’s begin by looking at the characters in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, chapter 2. Matthew begins ‘In the time of King Herod …’ There are a number of King Herods mentioned in the Gospels, but this is Herod the Great who reigned from 37 BC until his death in 4BC. He was of course a client king for the Romans but he enjoyed strong Roman support and exercised substantial power. He was known as Herod the Great because he was a great builder, most significantly for substantially rebuilding and extending the Temple in Jerusalem. He did so more for his own glory than for the glory of God, although his achievement was a major blessing for the Jewish people. His public buildings were ambitious and grandiose. Herod himself was not Jewish and was generally despised by the populace.
Notwithstanding his solid record in public works, he was a ruthless, cruel tyrant. He murdered one of his sons whom he saw as a threat, and he dispatched many enemies and had a secret police type network. His cruelty is highlighted in the Gospels in the sequel to the visit of the Wise Men, namely the murder of all males in Bethlehem under two years of age. The motivation for this grievous act was similar to other atrocities by Herod, namely the elimination of any potential rival. He is certainly the dark character in Matthew’s account. One thing to notice, however, is that Herod died in 4BC, probably in late March or early April, meaning that Jesus could not have been born later than the period of that year in which Herod still lived. Jesus’ birth may have been a year or two earlier, however.
Then we come to the Wise Men. How many were there? We don’t know because the Bible doesn’t tell us. The assumption that there were three grew up because Matthew mentions three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Later legend even gives them names, Balthasar, Melchior, Caspar; but this has no historical foundation. They were not kings, so the carol, ‘We three kings of Orient are’ is way off the mark in various ways.
They were Wise Men, but not so much like sages or prophets as found in Israel and other ancient societies, although there were aspects of that. They were astrologers, alchemists and practitioners of other esoteric arts. The whole business with the Star leading them, points to their astrological interests, which back then overlapped with early astronomy.
There is also a fair chance that they were priests of the traditional Persian religion Zoroastrianism. They came from the East as Matthew says, and that probably refers to the area of the Middle East now covered by Iraq and Iran. Zoroastrianism was founded in the 6th Century BC and became the traditional religion of the region prior to the rise of Islam in the 7th Century CE. Today it numbers about 200,000 adherents, small pockets of whom live in Iran, but most now in India, descendents of Persian migrants of many centuries ago. Its adherents are commonly known in India as Parsees. It is a monotheistic religion – one God – as in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Interestingly, Zoroastrians believe in the resurrection of all the dead at the end of the world, when good will finally triumph over evil.
We present this information to flesh out the background to the Gospel and today’s account of the Magi in particular. Yet the region in which all this took place is the stuff of today’s headlines – conflict in Jerusalem over Jewish settlements, tensions on Temple Mount where Herod built his Temple, war in Iraq, persecution in Iran, with religious and ethnic minorities being the frequent targets of violence – Christians primarily but other religious minorities also, including errant Moslems, errant to the dominant persecutors. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians still live in these lands, along with a dominant Islam.
The complete identity of these Magi remains shrouded in mystery. There is much speculation but what I have outlined above is very credible. These Gentiles, non-Jews, come to worship the Jewish Messiah, to honour the King of the Jews. That is why Epiphany is about the revelation of God’s light and grace to the Gentiles, to the whole world. Jesus is the Messiah but he is not the Saviour of the Jews only. The Wise Men recognised his universal significance. His birth was good news for the world, not just for Israel.
It was, of course, decidedly bad news for King Herod. Indeed, it is bad news for all earthly despots, for all kings and rulers who think they can do as they please and answer to no-one. The birth of Jesus the King of the Jews, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, now exalted to heaven, relativises all other powers and authorities, and heralds the final defeat of tyranny. Of course the tyrants won’t go quietly and can do great harm in the process – the Scriptures testify to this in the aftermath of the Magi’s visit with Herod’s murderous actions in Bethlehem. Then again at the climactic scene of Jesus’ life when he is finally condemned. The powers that be conspire to destroy him – Pontius Pilate representing the might of Rome, the High Priests and the Jewish Council, and another King Herod. The triumph of tyranny seems assured. But Jesus’ cross actually marks its defeat, and the defeat of sin, death and the devil in all their guises. For the cross overcomes sin and Jesus rises as conqueror. Life and freedom may get a hard time from the King Herods of this world, but they are too precious to God, so they are not quashed. Even foreign adherents of other religions, represented by the Magi, recognise that and pay homage to the truth revealed in Jesus.
Our reading today portrays a conniving King Herod and ardent, devout pilgrims from the East. I have painted something of the background to this visit of the Magi – who they were, who King Herod was, what was going on with all the political machinations. Yet there are two other very important characters mentioned in this reading, although they play only passive roles in the scene Matthew paints. They are vital characters all the same; they are the reason for the story, and indeed its central characters. The Magi’s visit is painted in quite serene terms, a sea of peace and tranquillity in the midst of all the surrounding conflicts and before violence breaks out. Listen to Matthew, ‘When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.’ And please notice that they entered the house not the stable.
Today is New Year’s Day. We enter 2017 in a world awash with conflicts and problems. Our nation is beset with all sorts of challenges and tensions; the world is at war – with terrorism everywhere, with the wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, growing tensions between the Superpowers – America, Russia and China, not to mention North Korea; a new, inexperienced and erratic President about to take office in America while a rampant Vladimir Putin is in the ascendancy in international affairs. And that doesn’t include the Refugee and Environmental crises spiralling out of control. Happy New Year everybody!
But before we do anything else, including panic, let us pause with the Wise Men and kneel before our God and Saviour, and pay him homage. Let us worship the Lord; the risen Saviour; the Beginning and the End of human history. Let us be assured by the one who has seen off many a tyrant, and will see off the contemporary ones in due course. As the hymn says, ‘This is my Father’s world’; Jesus has been enthroned in heaven and his kingdom continues to grow in this troubled earthly realm. But one day he will return, evil will be finally overthrown, death will be no more, every tear will be wiped away, and Christ will be all in all.
So let us enter this New Year with faith, confidence and hope. We are not the victims of tyrants anymore than Jesus was, despite appearances at times. We are not helpless and powerless; we are not captive to fear; we are not cowed by opposition. We are the sons and daughters of God; we are the brothers and sisters of Christ; we are the heirs of the holy martyrs. God is with us, Emmanuel, as we have just celebrated. In Christ life and freedom are ours; his peace which passes all understanding cannot be taken from us. So let’s get on with it. Amen.