Tag Archives: Magi

The True Light enlightens everyone

Ephesians 3.1–12
Matthew 2.1–12


The secret of the divine purpose is in Christ, and it is an ‘open secret’ accessible to all believers. It is and remains a mystery in the sense that no human intelligence could have guessed what God planned to do; but it is now revealed to Paul and his group (see 3:3–6). Its content is that Gentiles as well as Jews are united in a common hope and blessedness, with all racial barriers broken down (2:11–22) and all specious claims to exclusivity exposed. — Ralph P Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Interpretation Commentary

Do our churches embody the reconciliation and unity of often hostile groups—Caucasian and African American, Christian and Muslim, heterosexually identified and LGBTQ persons, the one percent and the working poor? Do they manifest the wisdom of God in its rich variety?… — Stephen B Boyd, Connections: Year A Vol.1, Advent through Epiphany


What was the biggest struggle of the early Christian church? What was the thing that divided one group of Christians from another? 

Hint: it’s something we all take for granted today. Another hint: we heard it in our Ephesians reading.  

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

The biggest struggle was this: most of the first leaders of the church, like those in the mother church in Jerusalem, taught that Gentiles should become Jews in order to follow Jesus. They should be circumcised and stop eating prawn cocktails and bacon sandwiches. The way to Christ was strictly through the covenant God had made with Israel. The Apostle Paul on the other hand taught differently. Paul taught that the covenant God had made with the Jewish people had become an open covenant in Christ. It was a new covenant, available to all who received it in faith. Gentiles were welcome as Gentiles. And this was really controversial. 

There’s no problem now, of course. As far as I know, I’m 100% Gentile. And I suppose many of you are. We don’t think at all about having to become a Jew if we’re going to be a Christian. 

Paul’s way, ‘his gospel’, encountered lots of opposition. But he won through and the church became a mixed body of Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s Gospel won so completely we’ve forgotten it wasn’t always this way. 

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Going another Way

In the west, today is the Day of the Epiphany. An epiphany is an unexpected experience of an enlightenment, a new and deeper understanding of life. When the ‘wise men’ or Magi visited Jesus, they had an epiphany, and became even wiser. 

In the eastern churches, Christmas begins today at sunset. Happy Christmas to brothers and sisters who are about to celebrate this sacred Day!


Matthew 2.1–12

It might have been just someone else’s story;
Some chosen people get a special king,
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In palaces, found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice. — Malcolm Guite, ‘The Magi’ in Sounding the Seasons: Seventy sonnets for the Christian Year


We call them ‘wise men’, but my guess is that most of us would discount their wisdom today. It was the so-called wisdom of astrology, seeing signs in the heavens, trying to predict the future from the wanderings of planets through the constellations. Yet this time, it seemed to have worked.

We call them wise men, but the name the scriptures give them is ‘magi’. Magi is like our words magic and magician. I’m going to call them magi.

The magi weren’t what we think of as magicians; they were part of a Persian priestly group whose astrological wisdom brought them mostly respect, but also some mockery. 

We know the story, how they saw a star that they interpreted to foretell the birth of a new king in Judea. So they followed this strange new star to—well, not to little Bethlehem. Not at first. When they arrived in Judaea, they went to the logical place, the place you’d expect a new king to be born. They went to the big smoke. Jerusalem. 

And in the big smoke, they saw the big man himself. Herod.

Who else would know about a new king, right?

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Were they so wise?

Matthew 2.1–12


What are you doing, O Magi? Do you adore a little Babe, in a wretched hovel, wrapped in miserable rags? Can this Child be truly God? … Are you become foolish, O Wise Men … Yes, these Wise Men have become fools that they may be wise. — St Bernard of Clairvaux, from a sermon on the Epiphany

Today, we come to the bit about the three wise men.

Of course, that’s an unbiblical thing to say. We always think ‘three wise men’ because three gifts are mentioned.

I have another reason for not wanting to speak of three wise men.

I’m not sure they were all that wise.

Matthew doesn’t say they were wise, did you know that? Matthew’s word for them was magoi. That’s our word magi. So let’s call them magi.

We know that word magi, it’s where we get our words magic and magician from.

Nonbiblical sources reveal that magi were associated primarily with Persia, where they were members of a priestly class learned in astrology and other magical arts, including divination, dream interpretation, and the concoction of potions.

Magi were often lampooned as deceivers or fools, so Matthew may well mean to show God’s gracious revelation to Gentile ‘experts’ in nonsense.

So the magi follow a star which they believe heralds the birth of a new king. Where do you go to find a king? To the palace.

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The mystery of God is among us (Epiphany, Year A, on 5 January 2014)

Ephesians 3.1–12
Matthew 2.1–12

Tomorrow, 6 January, is the Day of the Epiphany, which is the day we remember that once upon a time, wise men came across huge distances to worship Jesus. Epiphany is a kind of mystery story. There’s a clue: the Star of Bethlehem. There’s a dodgy villain: Herod the Great (his name even sounds dodgy, like he’s a hypnotist in a cheap nightclub). There’s no chase—but there’s a long journey from the ‘mysterious East’. And there’s mystery. There’s mystery in bucket loads.

The star is mysterious. It doesn’t behave like normal stars; it rises like a normal star but then it eventually stops—just like that!—when it gets to the place Jesus is. How does a star behave like that?

Herod tries to be mysterious, but he’s pretty transparent really. He is ‘King Herod the Great’, and no one is going to take his place. When the wise men come to ask where the recently-born ‘King of the Jews’ is, he bristles. His homicidal impulses were never far from the surface—he killed his wife Mariamne and one of his sons—and they were fully charged now. It was kill or be killed, and Herod preferred to kill.

The wise men, now they are mysterious. They come from God-alone-knows. Matthew may have pictured three, but we don’t know. They may have been astrologers or sorcerers or even priests of the Zoroastrian religion, to which the late Freddie Mercury belonged. We just don’t know. What do we know about them?—we know they weren’t members of the chosen people, they were Gentiles like most of us, and in Matthew’s story of Jesus they were the first to drop everything to find this new king.

The new king is mysterious. The story tells us that the star wasn’t specific enough to tell the wise men where the new king was, not at first. So they did what most people would do; they reported to head office. They went to the capital, to Jerusalem, to the palace, to Herod himself.

They didn’t imagine that the king would be in li’l ol’ Bethlehem. They didn’t think his parents would be ordinary folk. They had costly gifts, gold, myrrh, frankincense; this newborn king may have been better off with extra blankets for the winter, or a K-Mart gift voucher.

There are mysteries wherever you look in the Epiphany story. Not mysteries that we can solve; these are mysteries we can only wonder at.

St Paul also wondered at the central mystery of the Epiphany over fifty years after Jesus was born, even though there is no sign that he even knew about the story of the wise men. He wrote (Ephesians 3.6) that the mystery was this:

the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus, the magi are the first Gentiles to share in the good news of Jesus—but they are far from the last.

Paul’s mission was to Gentiles, to people who hadn’t grown up in the Faith of Israel, to those who thought differently and lived very differently.

The Church is meant to be a body of diversity. There are old, young, black, white, male, female, gay, straight—and all are one in Christ.

The greatest mystery of Epiphany is that when God comes ‘down to earth’, God doesn’t come only to special people, chosen people, good people. God comes to everyone without exception. God becomes our neighbour, everyone’s neighbour.

God calls us to be keepers and heralds of this mystery: God leaves no one out, God excludes no one. We can exclude other people by our own self-righteousness, or by our fear of them; but God has come to reconcile and include people who think and live differently from one another. God’s grace is beyond our reach or our understanding.

In 2014, this congregation is called to be a place of inclusion, where no one is left out because of who they are. God welcomes all who will come and calls us to do the same—that’s the Christian mystery, that’s the wonder of God; that is our mission. Amen.

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Inclusive, welcoming and forgiving—Feast of the Epiphany, Year C (6 January, 2013)

Isaiah 60.1–6
Ephesians 3.1–12
Matthew 2.1–12 

Fifty years ago, back in 1963, Rev. Dr Martin Luther King said this:

We must face the sad fact that at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, when we stand to sing…we stand in the most segregated hour in America.

In his gospel, Matthew tries to show us that God’s vision for his people is an inclusive one, which grows from Israel’s calling as the people of God.

It shows how the Gentiles are called to become a part of God’s chosen people. In other words, everyone—“Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” (Galatians 3.28), black or white, left or right, gay or straight—is now an equal member of the chosen people.

Paul bears witness to this truth. He speaks of his ‘understanding of the mystery of Christ’:

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Unlike Paul, but like all the other gospel writers, Matthew speaks of this “mystery of Christ” by telling a story. We call it the story of the Three Wise Men, but I’m not convinced there were three. Or that they were all that wise, when they fall as they do for Herod’s machinations. And it’s not at all important that they were men.

Let’s call them what Matthew called them: the magi. We get our word ‘magic’ from ‘magi’. Magi were considered to be sorcerers, astrologers, interpreters of dreams, potion makers. They seem to belong more on the set of a Harry Potter movie than in the pages of the Bible. But here they are.

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