The Magi

Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch

Epiphany  |  Matthew 2:1-12

A few years ago, I agreed to write a reflection each week, a post to match the gospel passage for each of the Sunday readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. It was a three year project, as there are three years in the lectionary cycle. In January of 2016, Epiphany didn’t fall on a Sunday, and there was no need to write about it; this year, Epiphany does, and if I am going to complete the series, there needs to be a matching post.

I didn’t foresee, when I started the project, how much work it would be, or how rewarding. There’s an old expression about something lasting a month of Sundays. Well, this took three years of Sundays — plus the odd ones like now.

Magi. Magicians. Sorcerors. There’s something intriguing, something you don’t see every day.

They aren’t kings, you know. “We Three Kings” is one of my favorite carols — I love the minor keys, and darker songs vibrate sympathetically with something inside me. Still, the Greek word is μάγοι, transliterated into English as “magi”, plural form of the word from which we get magic and magician. And not the kind with doves stuffed in their pockets or scarves shoved up their sleeves. This is the darker kind, or the more enlightened kind, depending on your viewpoint.

These are people who studied the stars, watched for signs. They paid attention to dreams, because truth bubbles up in them. They sought knowledge. (They may have tried to change lead into gold, because let’s face it, who wouldn’t like to know the secret of that trick?) Today, they might be called the three scientists.

Just not kings. There was a word for that, βασιλέως, basileos, like Herod. We get basilica from it — a building that would have been suitable for a king, στοά βασίλειος, stoa basileos, chamber of a king. We assume the magi were men, given the word μάγοι is a male form and is typically translated as “wise men”, but Matthew doesn’t say. Tradition tells us there were three of them, but again Matthew doesn’t say.

They came from the East. We do get that much. As origin stories go, that one’s a little vague, the East being a big place. Still, we all have things in the past we don’t want to talk about.

Van Gogh - The Starry Night
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

And they followed a star. A sometimes moving, sometimes stopping, erratic, miraculous star that somehow led them to the exact house (maybe in Bethlehem although Matthew doesn’t quite say, not if you read closely, does it?) wherein they could find Mary with the young Jesus. No, not the manger. Read the story. And give up trying to make Matthew’s tale match Luke’s — it doesn’t. This is Matthew’s story, and it is its own tale, with its own reasons and themes.

These magic fellows came at a different time than Luke’s manger story, to a different place, when the child was nearly two. That’s when they told Herod the star appeared, two years prior, and that’s how old you had to be, if you were a baby in Bethlehem and didn’t want to be murdered by Herod’s henchmen — over two. It’s not a pretty story. Even if there is nothing outside of this Gospel to corroborate the tale of Herod murdering children, there’s plenty of proof that all of the Herod clan were unpleasant. Herod wasn’t a magician, he was a king, and that’s how tyrants roll. They are afraid of what’s out there in the dark, waiting for them. Think of how afraid Herod must have been to order the murder of children.

So the magic star stopped, somehow indicating a single house (unless they checked around door to door — anyone seen a newborn king? — and nothing indicates whether they did or didn’t), and the Magi found Jesus and Mary and honored them with gifts. Then the Magi, listening to their dreams, went back into the fabled East without a word to Herod.

What do we make of all of that? How does it matter?

We could go full modern-day evangelical on it and try to prove that the star was real, match it to some comet. We could get so lost insisting that the story is true that we miss the truth of it. That happens a lot these days. You don’t have to go far or question much to find an angry evangelical Christian, ready to yell at the rest of us, or worse, in the name of God.

The star doesn’t matter. The location of the house doesn’t matter. Where in the East these Magi came from doesn’t matter. The gifts they gave are not important (although the gold might go a long way toward explaining how an older Jesus seemed well enough funded right from the start that he could leave his day job and go walkabout.)

It matters that we remember to look around, to notice the signs around us. I don’t mean there are traveling stars leading us, though that would be nice. Ordinary things can keep us focused, if we pay attention. A word. A dark song. Geese honking across our sky. Anything that jars us awake, makes us pay attention to being alive. We sleep through our lives, and how few of us follow either our stars or our dreams?

Dream of the Magi
Dream of the Magi. Carving by Gislebertus, Autun Cathedral, France, c. 1125-1135.

Dreams. There are several in Matthew. God speaks to Joseph four times in dreams, and he listens. God warns the Magi in their dreams, and so they traipse off into the night. In dreams, the barriers between what we allow our waking mind to think and what our unconscious mind knows can drop. We encounter our fears, our own truths. We should not dismiss the truth in the flight of birds, the beauty of the stars, the strangeness of the quiet voice in the backs of our minds and the depths of our dreams.

When we find something worthwhile, we should honor it. The Magi gave rare gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh. We might give our time — it seems the thing we have the least of anymore. And let the finding be enough. The Magi didn’t try to move into Mary’s house. They didn’t overstay their welcome. And all they took away was the experience, which they knew was enough, and which is how we know they were wise, of course. We don’t have to own a thing, to hold onto it, for it to be part of us. A lion is more beautiful alive in Africa than dead on a trophy wall or covering someone’s floor. The Magi knew that if this child was God, there was no place on earth they could go where God would not still be with them.

Epiphany. ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia — an appearance. A manifestation. A revelation. Literally, the word means something like “a showing forth” or “a shining upon.” Today we use it to describe a moment of clarity, an ever more rare moment when we understand something that matters. Something that guides us. Something that resonates in our dreams.

Don’t be afraid of the dark. That’s the only place where we can see the stars.

And don’t be afraid of tyrants. Leave them in the dark, since they fear it.

And look around for something pointing the way to what matters. Look for those things that are true, and good, and pure. They are still in the world, pure and holy things, as simple and full of potential as a child, if we let ourselves find them.

And don’t forget to dream. The part that matters will stay with you when you wake, no matter how far you may wander.

Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch
Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch. Collection Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Killing Jesus, Part 2 — A Cliffhanger

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany  |  Luke 4:14-30

Killing Jesus, Part 2 — A Cliffhanger

“Kill him,” they said. They must have, though Luke does not record their words. Kill him, stone him, throw him off the cliff. And of all of their options, beating, stoning, and throwing a man off a cliff, they chose the cliff.

Why, we might wonder. Was it the simple convenience–a man killed and the body disposed of all at the same time? Deniability? So that though everyone involved would know the truth, the death of Jesus might look like an accident to outsiders?

God knows. People in groups behave differently, though seldom better and never smarter, which is the explanation for modern politics.

And what did they mean to do with the others, his friends, his followers? It seems unlikely that Jesus managed the trip without someone tagging along, but it is possible that he was alone. Luke names none of the disciples before this point in the narrative. In fact, it is only afterward that Luke tells the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother in law, and that comes even before Simon choosing to follow Jesus. The details of Luke’s Gospel differ from Mark’s earlier account, and Matthew skips over some of the story altogether.

John’s Gospel, well, is different. John is telling a theological narrative, not an action story. Where we might say Mark, Matthew and Luke tell us much of what happened, what our eyes might have seen, John tells us what his heart understood. The truth a blind man sees may be greater.

Christ Preaching, by Gottlieb

The congregation in Nazareth looked at Jesus and saw a native son, the child of Mary and of Joseph the carpenter, all of whom they knew. They knew as well that Jesus was respected in Capernaum where he had gone to live. They expected great things of their returning son. They expected to be flattered, included, thanked, to be seen as great themselves by association with this so called teacher and miracle worker.

Why was he even there at all? Forty days of struggling with demons in the desert, forty days of hunger and exhaustion, and Jesus comes here, to his boyhood home, to read in the synagogue surrounded by the faces of old men he knew from childhood. Why make the journey here, when he could have stayed home in Capernaum to rest and gain back the weight he had lost in the wilderness?

Maybe he wanted them to be the first to hear the good news, After all that ordeal, he came to tell them that the promise of the prophets had been fulfilled.

Today, he told them. In your hearing, right now, this moment, the promise is fulfilled.

Then Jesus sat in the synagogue surrounded by these good, faithful people, and he began to tell them how much God loved other folk. Foreigners. People who did not even understand how to worship God properly. People whose religion was suspect. People who were different. The strangers in their midst.

They were disappointed. Perhaps they forgot their own story.

Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

That was the word of the Lord, forgotten in their anger and indignation. They were willing to share their scraps, but not their place at the table.

It was bad enough to think that God might love the stranger as well as themselves. To think that God might love the stranger first or, God forbid, more, that was unbearable. It offended their faith. It offended their sense of order. It offended their pride.

This was no prophet. This was no one speaking in the name of God. This was only Jesus, and had they not known him from boyhood? Who was he to teach them? The stories from Capernaum were only stories, though some people here in Nazareth had seen and heard strange things around the boy. No, this was not the boy they had known. He had become a stranger to them.

Better to kill Jesus than to hear that God did not love them first, better, more than strangers. Better to kill Jesus, to kill the God who did not meet their expectations, and then they would be free to worship the god they created, the god made in their own image, the god who met their expectations perfectly. Better to kill Jesus and be right, than to listen to his words, to consider the possibility that even with their house of worship, their robes, their prayer books, their traditions, that they might be wrong.

Well, who likes to be wrong?

Better not to consider the stranger in their midst. In welcoming the stranger, might not they also welcome into their midst the God whom they had not made, the God they claimed already to know? Somehow they knew that God was dangerous, that God had ideas about helping the poor, embracing the stranger, taking risks to help someone else.

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

They rejected Jesus. They tried to kill him. When they shoved him out to the edge of the cliff, they were pushing the stranger along with him. They had God out there on the edge, but they didn’t know that is where God always lives.

We shouldn’t be so hard on them. Be honest. Most of us would have done the same thing.

The story is that Jesus turned and passed through the middle of the mob. They had lost sight of him, after all. And just think, any of them could have reached out and touched him, probably were touched by him, could have stopped and turned and gone with him, but they plunged on without him. They were more interested in following their own ideas than they were in looking for a word from God, and they were left alone, on that cliff, gazing down into the abyss.

Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

The truth is that we are always on the edge, our lives balanced precariously at the top of a cliff, and God is always passing through our midst, usually unnoticed, untouched. We are watching the wrong things, loving the wrong things. Sometimes God comes to us as the stranger beside us, and sometimes as the stranger within us, the thought that comes unbidden, the idea that leaps into our mind.

Perhaps we might recast the words of the prophets: Love ye the stranger in your midst, for so comes God among us all.

When we accomplish this much, to love the stranger we meet and the stranger within, then we will know that this day the scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing, the messiah is at hand, and the good news has already come to pass.

The Great Isaiah Scroll, found at Qumran. Israel Museum.


This post is part of an ongoing three year project based on the Sunday gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Killing Jesus, Part 1 — A Cliffhanger

Third Sunday after the Epiphany  |  Luke 4:14-30

Killing Jesus, Part 1 — A Cliffhanger

Everything started so well. Jesus stood in the synagogue of his childhood home, Nazareth, reading from the scroll of Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

All of this, all of these good things, have come to pass, Jesus tells them. So far, so good. If he had stopped there, things might have been ok. He could have gotten up and walked away, but no. He had to elaborate. He had to tell these people that grace extended to other folk. Different people. Foreigners.

Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue, by James Tissot

That’s when they dragged him out and threw him over a cliff. Well, almost.

They bum rushed Jesus, frog walked him to the edge of a cliff, and they made to throw him over. It didn’t take a lot of planning on their part. Nobody had to stand up and say, Hey, here’s what we can do to him. No, they just did it, as though they had done such a thing before this occasion, these religious folk with an inclination to violence.

It makes you wonder what one might have seen at the bottom, what kind of bones and rags were bleaching in the sun down there. Somehow their reaction feels modern, like something one might hear on the news, an incident involving a fringe religious group, except that the people in this story are not fringe lunatics. They are mainstream, church folk, salt of the earth.

Incidentally, the Lectionary gives the same passage of scripture to both the Third and Fourth Sundays after Epiphany, though the story is split between them. It’s a cliffhanger.

Mark, not Luke, is the Gospel known for using halves of one story to bookend another one. Still, it is worth considering where Luke places this story. Before Jesus visits the peculiarly violent congregation of Nazareth, he was in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan himself. After escaping from the mob, Jesus goes home to Capernaum and so to the synagogue there, only to be met by a man “who had the spirit of an unclean demon.”

It is an odd sandwich, with the faithful people in the middle and demons on either side. Jesus escapes his meetings with demons unscathed, but the religious folk nearly kill him. There is no peace, says the Lord, for the wicked. (Isaiah 48:22)

Temptation in the wilderness, violence in the church — it is no wonder that Jesus did most of his teaching while walking out in the open, along the seashore and in the streets, more like a Greek philosopher than a Jewish rabbi. The people he found there did not think themselves to be so special, so important, in the eyes of God. They knew the real thing when they saw it, and they knew they weren’t it. The congregation gathered on the pews were different than the congregation called together on the street, which leaves us with questions.

Why does one group get so angry so quickly, to the point that they try to throw Jesus off a cliff, unwittingly trying to kill God himself? And perhaps more to the point, to which congregation do we belong?

Next week — Killing Jesus, Part 2

Christ in the Synagogue in Capernaum
Christ in the Synagogue in Capernaum

A Story About Ordinary Things

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560

Second Sunday after the Epiphany | John 2:1-11

A Story About Ordinary Things

It was only wine and water, nothing unexpected at a wedding, nothing to grab your attention. The first great sign, the first astounding miracle Jesus performs, at least according to the gospel story as John tells it, is done with such ordinary things, changing water into wine, and for an audience who have already drunk enough to make their testimony unreliable.

Of course, nothing is ordinary. And ask any good defense attorney whether party people make good witnesses, or whether a jury will believe a mother testifying for her son.

The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460
The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460

Still, in telling the simple story of a wedding, this Gospel opens our minds to the idea of God — the God of “Let there be light”— at work in the lives of ordinary people like ourselves. Thought about long enough, it is a little odd, a little unsettling. And none of us is ordinary.

Why do we get this story? Why all these stories at all, instead of just a list of assertions, ideas about God, rules about living, that sort of thing — believe these things, do these things? What is it about telling stories, even all these short stories stitched together, that makes the gospels so compelling?

If you tell people what you think, they can agree, or disagree, or perhaps ignore you altogether and forget about it. On the other hand, if you tell them a story, the story gets into their heads, and they are stuck with it.

Stories we hear, whether we believe them or not, have a way of getting past the firewalls of our minds. It’s what we’re hardwired for — ever since the first fires in the first caves, we’ve listened to stories, and we’ve retold them over and over, sometimes to other people, sometimes to ourselves.

So for this week, I’m going to cheat. Instead of writing a post, I’m going to tell you a story. In fact, I’m going to tell you the same story, just tell it a little differently from the way it comes out in the Gospel of John.

Here it is, from my novel I,John. I hope you enjoy it.


I did not know the family, but we had been invited. We were gathered in the courtyard, a group within the group, although Peter was going around talking and laughing, his great shaggy head easy to spot. I was sitting near Jesus in the shade of a fig bush just tall enough to offer a screen from the sun, and I saw Mary making her way toward him before he saw her, although I was never sure what Jesus knew about his surroundings. He picked people from the crowd when I had not seen them, ignored others who were standing in front of him.

Mary could not be ignored. She waved at people across the courtyard and smiled at them, then came and knelt beside Jesus. She reached up and rubbed his shoulder, and I supposed she was happy to see her son. That’s when I noticed two servants had followed her from within the house.

“They are running out of wine,” she said.

Jesus sighed.

“What do you want me to do about that?” he said. “It is not my party, and it is not my time. This is their day. Their party.”

Mary ignored him and waved the servants over.

“Do what he tells you,” she said. Jesus just sighed again, looking around the courtyard. It was only a little theatrical, enough to say, ‘See how much I love her, even when she annoys me.’

He pointed at some large stone jars standing at the wall of the house.

“Go and fill them with water,” he told them. It was not a small task. Each jar would hold a number of buckets of water, and the process would be tiresome in the heat. The servants looked at him, then at Mary. She nodded and shooed them with her hand.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Do what he told you.”

They did not look happy, but they hurried over to a well and began pulling up buckets of water and carrying them to the stone jars. It was warm enough in the courtyard that the sound of the water was welcome. When they had filled all of the jars, they stood waiting to see what idiotic task they would have next. I knew that if this ended badly, we would be leaving quickly, but things never ended badly around Jesus, at least not until that very last thing. I sat still and quiet, waiting like the servants.

Jesus appeared to be lost in thought. Mary nudged him in the side, and he turned to look at the stone jars, wet with the water splashed on the sides and along the tiles near them.

“Draw some out, and take it to your steward,” he said.

They stood with backs straight, looking first at Jesus then across the courtyard at the head servant who already appeared displeased with all the water carrying. Then, dour and resigned, one of them took a dipper and filled it from a jar. Drops fell dark on the ground. With round eyes he stared at the liquid all the while that he walked across the courtyard. The head servant took it and tasted it, the disgust on his face shifting to surprise.

Quickly he sent the man back and told them both to draw more from the jars and to serve it to the guests. Some of them had been watching as well, and the rest certainly noticed when they began to drink the new wine. We would not be leaving quickly after all, it seemed. Mary was enormously pleased and went off to talk to someone, probably to say that she was the mother of the one who had brought the wine they were now tasting.

As I said, things tended not to end badly with Jesus, not until that very bad ending itself. That was a different sort of event anyway, more something that Jesus endured than something he did. This was like the people at the pool, the blind man who stared at my face in amazement. It was a sign, a sign for us, for Mary, and for as many of the people who realized what had happened. At the same time, it was ordinary, just wine being served at a wedding. What was miraculous about that? It was only a miracle if one saw it as a miracle.

Of course, that was always the case, I thought. Maybe those crippled men who got up and walked out of that pool weren’t really crippled, maybe they had been pretending for the sake of being able to beg money from those who worked for a living. It was possible that the blind man was the same, pretending, and when Jesus caught him in his pretense, he had to abandon it. Of course, that would have been a sort of miracle, some would argue, just not one that required the power of God. I think that changing the behavior of men like that would require more power, be the greater miracle. Changing the mind is a greater sign than healing the body.

But I saw that blind man, saw his eyes when he could not see me. And I saw the amazement on his face when he could see me, when I was suddenly the most beautiful thing in his world. I knew things that the people sitting here drinking wine did not know, and even when we told them, some would never believe.

I got up and walked along the row of jars, and I saw my face reflected in the new dark wine.

This post is part of an ongoing three year project based on the Sunday gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary. You can find more about the novel I,John here.

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560
Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560

Expecting the Divine

Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness (painting)

First Sunday after Epiphany | Luke 3:15-22

Expecting the Divine

Luke claims that the people were filled with expectation. What a remarkable condition — an entire people looking forward, looking beyond themselves, expecting something, expecting the divine.

We don’t have to believe it, of course. Surely, not everyone was expecting a savior. It is hard to imagine everyone expecting anything — Christmas, an election, the sun rising. It is even harder to imagine everyone expecting the same thing, and so unlikely a thing as a messiah.

Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Dürer
Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Dürer

Perhaps in some different way it was true. Luke could have meant that his sort of people, the ones inclined to think about religious things, that all of these people were excited and thinking of a coming messiah, wondering about John the Baptist, thinking that John could be the one, though he denied it. He was certainly unusual enough, and he talked a lot about God and faith and repentance. He almost fit the bill.

Maybe it was true another way. Most of us are looking for something, expecting something or someone, hoping for something. Could the thing we are hoping for be some sort of messiah? Whether we define it in theological terms or not, are we hoping for something to save us, someone to save us, whether literally or figuratively?

Carl Jung wrote of archetypes, those powerful ideas, symbols, living deep in the unconscious regions of our minds—shadow, mother, trickster, hero, god. Surely a messiah qualifies? Someone to save us, god and hero and wise man in one, though the thing we are saved from varies?

Some of us want to be saved from despair, or grief, or regret. Others long to be rescued from the tedium of day to day life. Psychologists speak of needs and drives and behaviors, supplying language for our traps, cages, deficiencies, determination, desires. Just today I heard an economist talking about envy, envy of all things, as an economic force. To my mind, envy is something addressed by theology, not economists, but it makes sense as a economic principle as well.

What the ancients called sin and hubris, we call behavioral faults, to be expected in the natural order of the universe. Never mind that the natural order of the universe is violent, dangerous, ruthless, and unforgiving. Our modern comprehension of our place in the cosmos has been massively enriched, but at the same time our insight is shattered into kaleidoscopic and often bewildering bits.

Perhaps there is too much division, too much breaking up of knowledge into categories, separate rooms, disintegration. Not so long ago human lives were defined and molded by tribe or king or religion. Now we listen to voices of economists, politicians, doctors, scientists, fast food, gourmet food, all natural food, social media, real estate agents, bankers, automobile commercials, and the two hour window when a cable technician can hook up our televisions. With so many voices in our heads, it is hard to know which ones are important, which ones should get our attention. We are driving ourselves toward insanity.

The Adoration of the Magi by Leonaert Bramer
The Adoration of the Magi by Leonaert Bramer

We need something to save us from all of that, but our expectations are low.

The Christian celebration known as Epiphany is named for the showing, the revealing, of the Christ child. Some wise men found a child, caught sight of a symbol from the deepest parts of their minds, a savior figure, the messiah. They came, in the stories, with the expectation of finding him, and they did. So do we understand that the magi found the messiah because that is what they were sent to do, or did they find him because they expected him?

We call into being the things we expect. Expectations are powerful, connecting us to the divine in our hopes and dreams and aspirations. To live in expectation of redemption is an experience of faith, the practical application of hope.

What a remarkable way to live — expecting to experience the divine in our everyday lives.


Part of the Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Sunday Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary