Lectionary Reflection: Matthew 2: 1-12: The Magi.

Ah, yes.  Time for the Wise Men or Kings to show up.  There is only one problem: they were not Wise Men or Kings.  They were Magi.  Do you know who the Magi were?

One great mistake in many a presentation of Christianity is the portrayal of its origins in a kind of social and religious vacuum.  There was Christ and his disciples.  There were Jews, and there were Romans who were only to be seen as rulers and soldier.  The society and religion of the Romans (various religions) are never mentioned – a big unknown in the mind of most church goers.  What was it about the Samaritan culture and religion that caused them to be so despised by the Jews.  And what was prevalent outside Judea (and no doubt within as well).  I just imagine a typical church goer thinking the whole world was out there beyond Jerusalem with nothing to hold on to and eager for the message of Christ.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Magi were Medes, and for the most part priests of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism which (in the days of the Persian Empire) was for a time the largest religion in the world.  That did not change significantly when Alexander the Great overran that Empire.  Indeed, it appears Alexander in his last days adopted many of the tenants of faith in Ahura Mazda.

In 224 AD, the Sassanids took the “Eastern territories” of the old Persian/Alexander Empire and ruled an empire that stretched from Uzbekistan and the Indus to the western reaches of Mesopotamia, butting up against Syria and Palestine.  It was an enormously powerful empire that was able to give the Romans a run for their money.  And its chief religion was Zoroastrianism, and the Magi… Indeed, the Sassanids used that faith as a bulwark against the spread of Christianity in the east.  (And I bet you wondered why Christian missionaries spread into Europe and North Africa where they were inclined to be persecuted and thrown to the lions)…

The thing is, these Magi were not just ordinary men, but men with the kind of status and power to stand before Kings like Herod.  Herod was likely quick to see them.  It was politically expedient to see them.  Though under Rome’s protection, it would have been stupid to turn them away.

Now, these were practitioners of a truly dualistic religion.  They believed in one uncreated creator, but one who – through human agents – struggled against the forces of “unceation” which was seen in decay, lies and everything evil.  To be sure, the Sassanids (and Parthians before them) were militaristic, but the religion itself was one of peace that promoted a good heart and good works.  That is probably why they were eventually overrun by Islam…

But in those days, their ideas and culture was dominant over a large portion of the population and crept into all sorts of things.  Jesus was fighting a terrible headwind his whole life, in case you never knew.

One thing about these three Magi showing up (and the Magi knew all about the stars – astronomy, not just astrology), it shows that even at his birth, Christ was seen by the “Whole World” (Oikumene in the Greek) as being an advent of light, not darkness, and one worthy of worship.  He was seen as intimately connected to the Creator God, to the good, the light, the righteousness of the world and in no way to be associated with the decay and darkness or evil of “unccreation.”  And this was seen by outsiders!  Curious that all Herod saw was a rival…

It also shows that God’s intention was to bring the whole world into Christ. 

It also shows that Jesus had his work cut out for him…


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