How to be a disciple of Jesus? Ask the Magi!

εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo)
“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”

“They were over joyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated (πεσόντες [pesontes], to fall or to prostrate, an act of worship) themselves
and did him homage (προσεκύνησαν [prosekunēsan], to fall down to worship).
Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.”

θεωρέω (theoreo)
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)

A week ago, we travelled with the shepherds of Bethlehem to behold the sign: “an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:12).” As the radiant Word of God illumines life this Sunday we meet another group of people, albeit quite different from Bethlehem shepherds, “magi (μάγοι [magoi]) from the East (Matthew 2:1).” μάγοι (magoi), particularly with their treasures for the Child, stand in lavish contrast to the shepherds of Bethlehem. Yet pinning down exactly who these people are is somewhat difficult. A number of popular sources tend to equate these μάγοι (magoi) with practitioners of magic. Some ancient sources spoke of them ‘dabbling in dark knowledge,’ a knowledge that is more speculative and esoteric, removed from the common day-to-day knowledge of life and commerce, hence the popular moniker ‘the wise men.’ Other data associate the μάγοι (magoi) with a priestly-kingly caste in Persia (present day Iran) who spent their time in pursuit of learning that would inform and enhance society by elevating the bar of ethical living. Closely connected to this point is a scholarly discussion that links the μάγοι (magoi) with some (accent on ‘some’) of the monotheistic struggles in ancient Persia and a Zoroastrian reform movement emphasizing a priority of proper behavior towards one another in society grounded in a monotheistic cosmology.

At this point, one might be tempted to ask the question, “So what?” How does this historic and geographic data serve the message of salvation? Good questions and good responses that help minimize treating the μάγοι (magoi) as ‘just a story.’ I am sure many readers have heard that pronouncement applied to so many episodes in Sacred Scripture. It is dangerous because in the present culture ‘just a story’ translates to ‘not real’ and if ‘not real’ creeps into the perception of Sacred Scripture, the potential for a loss of direction in this life is great. As we saw last week, while many of the people we meet in the Infancy Narratives of Saints Matthew and Luke are important for many reasons, one significant role that all play is that they are teachers of discipleship. The ‘characters’ of the Infancy Narratives teach us how to follow Jesus Christ. No matter what we confidently know or do not know about the μάγοι (magoi) one aspect is certain: the μάγοι (magoi) teach us how to follow Jesus Christ.  The magoi teach us how to be disciples of Jesus! So:

μάγοι (magoi) and discipleship lesson #1: Allow yourself to be led by the Lord. The μάγοι (magoi) followed the star because the star “preceded them (προῆγεν, proēgen). Here the rich imagery of the Exodus and the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day. The Biblical journey is always following the Lord’s lead and never one’s own. This is why the image of the shepherd is vital in Christian spirituality and ecclesiology. Sheep individually or as a herd simply do not have the ‘smarts’ for their individual or collective survival let alone knowing where to go for water, food and safety. Sheep need help for their very existence and that assistance is given by the shepherd. So the μάγοι (magoi) - despite their ‘elevated’ social status and wealth which normally gives rise to ‘being in charge,’ the μάγοι (magoi) follow Another. How the μάγοι (magoi) journey is also significant. While travel necessitates looking ahead and occasionally looking down to prevent stumbling, travel - especially in the Ancient Near Eastern world devoid of a talking GPS - required looking above, looking at the Star as the definitive guide for the journey. So μάγοι (magoi) and discipleship lesson #1 essential amounts to allowing oneself to be lead and to be lead from One Who is above.

μάγοι (magoi) and discipleship lesson #2: Adore the Lord. We often hear at this time of year, “O come let us adore Him.” More than ‘nice words of a Christmas carol,’ the command to adore is living the First Commandment: ‘I am the Lord Your God, you will not have strange gods before Me.’ Adoration is the expression of single-mindedness, single heartedness and purity of heart that are treasured virtues throughout the pages of Scripture that speak of the authentic life of the disciple. When the μάγοι (magoi) entered the house, “They prostrated (πεσόντες [pesontes], to fall or to prostrate) themselves and did him homage (προσεκύνησαν [prosekunēsan], to fall down to worship).” The gesture and posture of prostration express humanity’s identity: a creature dependent on the Creator for all aspects of life. Pope Benedict XVI, in his year-end address to Vatican officials a few years ago, said: “we can do no other than say, with Saint Thomas: my Lord and my God! Adoration is primarily an act of faith – the act of faith as such. God is not just some possible or impossible hypothesis concerning the origin of all things. He is present. And if he is present, then I bow down before him. Then my intellect and will and heart open up towards him and from him. In the risen Christ, the incarnate God is present, who suffered for us because he loves us. We enter this certainty of God’s tangible love for us with love in our own hearts. This is adoration, and this then determines my life. Only thus can I celebrate the Eucharist correctly and receive the body of the Lord rightly.”

μάγοι (magoi) and discipleship lesson #3: Go home by a different route. There can be no other way for a disciple to traverse life than to do it differently. Because one is led by the Lord, because one has encounter the living God, because one falls down and worships the Lord in adoration life logically must be different for the disciple. This is the Hebrew experience of qadosh (qedesh, Hebrew that is translated ‘set apart,’ ‘different’ or ‘holy’). When Isaiah sang, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts,” he was recognizing a fundamental difference between himself and God. In western culture we tend to be somewhat skittish about holiness thinking improperly that one might appear better than someone else. Holiness is not about ‘better.’ It is a grace-enabled act of the will whereby one accepts the difference that life must be when one says “yes” to the Father’s will. The journey home – ultimately the eternal experience of salvation – cannot be a route “I” plan and execute as if “I” were obtaining directions from Google Maps or a vehicle’s GPS. It can only be a route whose directions have been planned by Another — the God and Father of us all — for the good of everyone’s salvation in this life and in the life to come.