In Monty Python’s famous movie, The Life of Brian, a group of intrepid Oriental explorers follow a moving star across the deserts of Central Asia all the way to Bethlehem. Unfortunately, they have a bit of trouble working out the point that’s directly underneath the star when it comes to an abrupt stop (haven’t you ever wondered about that?) and turn up at the wrong stable door at the exact moment when Brian’s mum has just welcomed him into the world. After worshipping Brian and giving his bewildered mum gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (she tells them they can keep that one), the astrologers leave – only to come back a minute later and demand the presents back again because they’d got the wrong stable. Brian’s life turns out a bit confusing after that, because he keeps getting mistaken for the kid next door at the most inconvenient moments.
Well, every year we celebrate – just a bit after Christmas – the visit to the infant Jesus by a group of foreigners that the Bible calls magi – this is a word that means astrologers, or sorcerers – not kings, not even necessarily wise men as some Bibles translate it – in fact, not even necessarily men! - but the sort of people who elsewhere in the Bible get a pretty bad rap for following a false spirituality and dabbling in occult powers that – at best – might seem to be seriously misguided. But today we recognise these people getting it right. Not only that, but we call our celebration the feast of the epiphany – this wonderful word, ‘epiphany’, isn’t just a church word, you also hear it from time to time in regular secular language and it means something like – ‘aha!’ – a sudden realisation that seems to come almost from nowhere - a glimpse of what’s really going on. Like all of a sudden the fog clears and we get to see clearly, just for a moment, what life’s really about.
But Epiphany is also part of the general celebration of Christmas – in countless church nativity plays the magi appear in the stable at the same time as the shepherds, one after the other – so why are we devoting a whole Sunday to them? I heard a story the other day about a small church who put on a children’s Christmas pageant but there weren’t enough kids for all the parts so one little girl had to be all three magi. Someone gave her the three presents to carry, all brightly gift-wrapped and looking highly desirable, and she proudly carried them on a pillow right up to the manger. When she got there, she announced in a loud voice, "Lo, I bring rich gifts to the baby Jesus - gold, circumstance, and mud."
Of course everybody laughed. Kind of sounds right, but the meaning’s wrong – or is it? – when I thought about this story in the light of world events in the year we’ve just said goodbye to, the appalling disasters that continue to disproportionately affect the poorest countries in our region –the overdose of circumstance and mud in the lives of the poorest of the world’s poor that sits a bit uneasily with the gold and glitz of Christmas in our comfortable part of the world – then it seemed to me that all we can really bring to God is the mud and circumstance along with the gold of our lives.
So, what are the magi telling us? Are these barbarian astrologers just a fancy way of saying the whole world is going to sit up and take notice here? Well, yes, at one level that’s exactly what the story’s saying. In this way of looking at it the important thing is what the magi aren’t – they aren’t Jewish – they’re not the sort of people who are supposed to get it right because they’re not supposed to be included in God’s plan – the fact that these outsiders recognise and pay homage to Jesus when the bigwigs in Herod’s court and the chief priests feel threatened and reject him suggests that - in Jesus – God is breaking the mould and breaking all the boundaries that up to now have defined who is supposed to be acceptable and who isn’t – so this story belongs to the strand of Jewish theology that says all the nations are eventually going to come to us and find themselves blessed in the God of Israel. It’s a generous theology of inclusiveness that has been part of the self-understanding of the people of Israel right from the start – and what Matthew is saying is that this is fundamental to the meaning and purpose of Jesus. What stops this from just being a shallow sort of triumphalism is that at the same time Matthew is pointing to the cross as the ultimate cost and the key to this divine inclusiveness. Because of the birth of Jesus, even Gentiles with their strange habits – people like you and me, in other words, get to find the purpose and the meaning of their lives in Israel’s God.
But I want to just speculate for a bit about what it is that the magi are. Not only are they foreign, but they get to find Jesus because they are adept at studying the stars – these astrologers or sorcerers are the specialist revealers of hidden knowledge and wisdom in the religion of their culture, the scientists, the revealers of epiphanies. This means that the magi are into stuff that not only the Jewish tradition but also the Christian tradition takes a very dim view of. Yet it’s this limited spirituality, this skill and learning, that brings them to where Jesus is. Almost. The magi do take a wrong turn and end up in Jerusalem. There, they turn out to be almost fatally naive to the realities of political power and fall straight into Herod’s trap. The point is that our limited and partial technologies of competence and control get us so far.
But here’s the point – however they get there, the magi eventually get to Bethlehem, and there they are blessed. They find the child with his mother, they do homage and offer their gifts, and they are blessed with wisdom – it is only after they find the Christ-child that the magi really become wise men, able to listen to their dreams and hear what God is trying to tell them. Maybe, if we look at it like this, the magi represent all of us, who are looking for the Christ-child but get muddled and lost in our own illusions of competence. But they – also like us – are eventually brought to where the Child is, not through their own skill but by God’s own persistence and prompting. And when they get there, they find something that upsets all their theories and all their science, because they find a child who is himself the revelation! One suggestion I read recently is that the precious objects they give to the baby Jesus could be the symbols of their own status and learning as astrologers – which would mean they were not so much giving presents to Jesus as surrendering the emblems of their own competence and their own knowledge. Like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, the magi have been on a long and dangerous quest, and what they have discovered is that the one thing they have to give up is the symbol of their own power and their own competence. The vulnerability of God coming as a tiny baby exposes the illusion of our own control and our own self-sufficiency. Could it be that there’s something more important than bringing gifts to the One who is the giver of all gifts? Could it be that when we encounter the baby Jesus, and we see God daring to be weak, when we see the reality of God’s powerlessness in the world, that we are being challenged to lay something down – to lay down all the illusions of control that we build up as defences in a world where nothing seems safe and certain? That the love and the vulnerability of God-with-us – is paradoxically more life-giving than the most powerful ideology of control. Because it’s at the manger that we see clearly the power of an incarnate God which is the power of humble, vulnerable love - not the power to stop tectonic plates from shifting, or the power to stop suicide bombers, but the power to suffer and die, and the power to renew and restore us and all things.
Whatever the exact meaning of the gifts the magi give, what happens when they meet the Christ-child is that the magi worship, and hand over the treasures of their heart – the things that are most important to them, and in return they are given wisdom, the gift of discerning the truth, and that is what they take home. That’s the deal for each of us when we seek Jesus, we recognise the illusion of our own strength and our own competence by the light of God’s weakness and God’s vulnerability, and we are unexpectedly blessed.
On the feast of the Epiphany the Church has always called us to think about exactly what is revealed in Jesus Christ, and on how we respond to that in the world we live in. Epiphany, in fact, was celebrated by the Church long before Christmas ever was, as a feast of the coming of the light. Epiphany, I think, is a day for self-examination, a day for being honest with ourselves about what God needs us to give up, so that we can receive the gift of humble love that alone can transform us into the wisdom of God.