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From a Distance: The Magi
The First Sunday in Advent
During Advent, Sandy and I will be speaking to you in the voices of different players in the Christmas story. Today I speak to you as one of the Magi.
Of all the characters who will visit you - Magi, prophet, shepherd, and angel - my identity is probably the most difficult to pin down. I know the rest of this crowd, and I bet they will all say that they have fuzzy identities, the no name shepherd, the angel who is always changing shapes and forms, and especially Isaiah who will tell you of his first and second self. He loves that split identity. We're always having to ask, "Which one are you today?"
But after all, do any of you really know what Magi are? The New Revised Standard Version of the bible calls us wise men. The New English Bible calls us astrologers. The Good News Bible hedges its bets and calls us "men who studied the stars (and) came from the East". Eugene Peterson's translation calls us scholars. There is an expanded version of Matthew called the Gospel of the Nazoreans which refers to us as soothsayers who constantly looked up to heaven and then conferred with one another.
Theories abound. Some say I am a Zoroastrian priest from Persia. Some say I am part of the Shaman caste of the ancient Medes. In reality we were a profession of scholars that existed throughout the Mediterranean world. There were Jewish Magi, but most of us were rather universalistic in our faith. We were absolutely not kings. Sorry about the song, "We Three Kings," but I guess that's the only one you have about us that stuck. In passages from Isaiah and Psalms there are references to kings bringing gifts to the Messiah. So there are those pictures of us with crowns. But I can tell you that was definitely not us.
Matthew is the only gospel writer that mentions me. Luke, who has all kinds of stories of shepherds and angels visiting the baby Jesus, doesn't even refer to my visit. There's a good chance that there was some political controversy in the early church over mentioning our visit at all. Leaders back then feared us as pagans. They didn't like astrology. The early church probably cut out some of Matthew's material because they were trying to get rid of the mystical faction in the church.
So who am I? I am something of an astrologer, part of a class of scholarly Magicians (throw a ball of fire), an interpreter of dreams, a reader of the stars, and a moral thinker, considered a little over the top by some of the gospel writers. People like me are known throughout various times in history as shamans and crones, medicine men and women, wizards and sorcerers, inventors, priests and priestesses, scientists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and software geniuses.
The Magi of ancient Egypt discovered mathematics, engineering, astronomy, and law. The Magi of folklore like Merlin built Camelot, in which technology, psychology and sociology all came together. Obe Wan Kanobe was a Magus, directing others in the secret knowledge of the force. So was Cinderella's fairy godmother, freeing Cinderella from her captivity and revealing to her the secrets of her inner beauty.
Any place you go for special training to understand the inner workings of a profession includes the energy of the Magi. When you learn the secrets of Christmas cookies from your mother, you are receiving the energy of the Magi. When you learn psychotherapy from a wise and gifted supervisor, you are accessing the energy of the Magi. When you learn the art of fine woodworking from a master carpenter, or the specialties of your academic field in a postdoctoral fellowship, how to throw a baseball from your father, storytelling from your grandmother, or fishing from your grandfather, you are following the Magi. You are being initiated into a world of secrets.
One gift of the Magi, and I can think of no other way to say this, is a wonderful bullshit detector. We the Magi see arrogance, especially in kings, and we can deflate it. Merlin did this for King Arthur. Nathan did it for King David when David had the affair with Bathsheeba. We speak truth to power. Good rulers today are those who know Magi and listen to their truth rather than cultivate lackeys to flatter them and fool their followers.
I was an astrologer of sorts in my day. People then had a love-hate relationship with astrology just like they do today. You privately sneak a look at your horoscope in the newspaper but publicly proclaim that you don't believe a word of it.
But let me explain astrology as I knew it. Your quantum physics today knows that everything - you, the earth, the stars - were all born from the explosion of a giant supernova. You share molecules with the most distant stars. The gravity that acts upon them acts upon you. Particle and wave function account for how the heavens and the earth are held together. In our day we recognized that the seasons of the earth, the movements of the stars, and the events of history were all somehow linked. You are still linked to the stars. Your writer, Madeleine L'Engle reminds you that the word dis-aster means separation from your stars.
So back then we looked at stars, both to chart their movement as do your astronomers and to look for signs and portents, to mark changes in life and history. You should know that many other religions, not just Judaism, believed a Messiah was coming. I, like many others of different faiths in that time, looked for the birth of the chosen one of God. When the star arose, I followed. I went on a pilgrimage.
All we knew was that something special was happening among the Jewish people. King Herod was in charge of the Jews, and we told him a new king was born among the Jews. Of course we were a little off here, and we realized right away that we had said the wrong thing to Herod. He got quite agitated. He dismissed us and sent us to Bethlehem, as his advisors recommended, but asked us to tell him right away where this child was so he could worship.
There is a unique energy in the universe when every person is born. Each birth is in a way an incarnation, a moment when the power of God is made flesh.
We found the baby born in a cave and knew that this child had within him a gift of God. Mary seemed to sense this, as did Joseph. Shepherds and angels had visited them. We could only hope that this baby would be nurtured to recognize, use, and live his gifts. Many people have wondered why we left such strange gifts for a poor homeless child as gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I know your joke. If we had been women we would have left practical things like casseroles and diapers, and we would have held the baby and changed him so Mary could get some rest. What can I say? These were the symbols of our trade. We told Mary to keep them as a reminder. We hoped that later when the child would ask of them, she would tell the story of our visit and the holiness we saw in him, not just as a Messiah for his people, but to all the world. And you're right, we probably should have brought a casserole too.
Then our truth alarm went off. We all woke up having had the same dream, one in which we realized that King Herod had no intention of coming to worship this baby. The dream told us that Herod wanted the baby dead. So we quietly went home another way, never to be heard from again.
The baby Jesus reminded me again of the depth and power of the forces of the universe. We sensed that we had come upon a cataclysm in history. We didn't know if we would be proven right. We had to wait and see. Part of any shift in history is people pointing it out when it happens.
What does this have to do with you? Lots of things.
First, it's pretty clear that you have been in the center of a shift in history with this election. Magi-like wisdom is sorely needed here. Look deeper than who screwed up the ballots, who stole what from whom. Your Electoral College is like your great, great, great grandfather's revolutionary war musket that's been kept loaded over the fireplace since 1780. Everyone left it there saying, "Don't worry, it will never go off." And it just shot through your living room. What will you do to keep someone from loading it again and putting it back over the mantle? Listen for the wisdom of the Magi.
Second, one of the gifts of true humanity is that of the Magi. There is a magus, or Magician if you prefer, deep within each of you. It is the creative part of you. You have an inner wisdom which you can find by looking to the stars at night, by listening to your favorite music, by painting, building, creating, writing, by taking walks in the woods, by meditating on the light of a candle, or feeling the rhythm of the waves. The magus is the energy of introversion. It is available to everyone, not just those who are Introverts on their Myers Briggs Personality Chart. Those who do make it their name are guides to us. I saw the gift of the Magi in Jesus, a diviner of deep truth, a worker of miracles, a healer, one utterly connected with the star that shone over his birthplace.
My third message to you is that if your Magic is to do any good, you have to identify, practice, and discipline your inner gifts. And then when the right star appears, you have to move. This is really an unusual Sunday for you to be listening to me. Most people pay attention to the Magi on the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany. That's the time tradition has it that we arrived in Bethlehem. But I really like being here today, because this is about the time we began our journey across the desert 2000 years ago. I love the story that Diane Farris wrote in which she talks about placing us Magi across the room when she sets out her crèche. Then she surreptitiously moves us closer to the baby Jesus every day. That's what this season is all about, moving closer and closer to a new vision. It's what you do. It's what God is doing. I like that elf of yours, who is just about invisible today, but who will be right up front here in full view on Christmas Eve.
You can have all the Magi juju in the world, and if you don't go anywhere with it, it won't mean squat. There are loads of creative wonders sitting on their magical butts making all kinds of forecasts and predictions who have never done anyone a bit of good. I encourage you to do something special, Magi-like this season. Pray and meditate. Light candles and quiet your soul. Then act. Go somewhere. Remember that the only people who found Christmas are those who got up and moved from where they had been.
This Christmas, when you think of me, one of the Magi, open yourself to the power of inner wisdom. Look at the stars, and then feel yourself moving inch by inch, whether it is across the desert or your living room, to your Bethlehem of birth.
We come to you God as the gift of inner wisdom and the vision of guiding stars.
We pray for the Magi part of us, the place where we are creative and where we do some magic.
And with that particular gift where we are so wise, we stop.
We stop what we're doing. Put away the every day tools of our trade, pick up a towel, wipe off our hands, go outside and look to the stars.
We look for our own North Star and ask where it will lead us this Christmas.
What journey do we need to take to make it to Bethlehem for a new birth?
We're like the wise men of the crèche right now, on the far side of the living room or in the bottom of the box.
We ask you God where we are to go this Christmas. And then we set off, following a star, offering gifts, in trust that this is the way life changes.
We send this wisdom, this star, to those we love, near and far, those in need and pain.
And we ask too for your magic to come to us that we always be gentle surprising visitors to infants and new ideas, seeking welcome and strength to grow.