Epiphany: the Magi and the Universality of Christ

Reverend Francis RitchieBible, Spiritual Disciplines4 Comments


Today is Epiphany. This is a day when much of the Church celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child and his family. That visit has a lot to say to us about the nature of Jesus, what he means to the world and what that says to us.

The visit of the Magi ‘from the east’ only gets a short mention in the gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) but forms one of the central elements of the nativity story. Many discussions have been had over how many there were with traditional nativity scenes allowing for three, to correspond to the three gifts given – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Chances are, by the nature of who they were, the party was much bigger than three. This isn’t what interests me. What catches my attention is what their probable religious and philosophical beliefs would have been.

Most scholarly discussions place them as being from the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism (Persian religion – Persia is now modern day Iran). Astrology was a significant practice of the priests of Zoroastrianism at the time, so the following of a significant star is fitting. Clearly in the scriptures they are from another land but where they are from is not identified. The term ‘Magi’ being associated with astrology and a number of other practices eventually led to the English term, ‘magic’.

What’s significant is that these men were foreign. They were from a foreign land and they were from a foreign religion. Within that religion were practices and beliefs that most modern Christians would raise their eyebrows at, yet here they were recognising the significance of Jesus and we have a day to celebrate it.

Their recognition of the significance of Jesus came not by missionaries sharing the Gospel, anyone giving them the 7 steps to peace with God, or someone espousing correct doctrine to them, rather it came through the context of their own religion, following the practices of that religion and walking accordingly. Walking that path led them to bowing before the Christ and worshiping him.

There is an important reminder for us in this day. In the celebration of the visit of the Magi is the reminder that God cannot be contained in our assumptions and our neat boundaries. In it there is the reminder that the truth of Jesus transcends our defined doctrines and that God can and does speak to all of his creation, not simply to the hearts of those who sit neatly in church pews on any given Sunday. More scandalously, Epiphany shouts at us that there is room in our worship of Jesus to hear the stories of others and for Jesus to be present in those stories even where those beliefs and practices may seem very foreign to us. If Jesus can be seen and found through the stars of a religion that utilized astrology as a central practice then what other religious beliefs and practices are pointing the way to him?

If you have a nativity scene in your home as I do in mine, then remember that three of the characters in that scene are priests of Zoroastrianism and they are there to worship the one who is King of all, not just a select few. That, my friends, is beautifully scandalous.

Photo by Nina Aldin Thune