Yesterday, whether you know it or not, we celebrated the Epiphany, commemorating (at least in western tradition) the visit of the Magi and Jesus being revealed to the Gentiles. Actually, today (January 6th) is the Epiphany, but it’s hard enough to get people into church on a Sunday that isn’t Easter or Christmas, so most churches cut their losses and did it a day early. Of course , sermons everywhere were filled with stories of wise men, expensive gifts and sneaky, deceitful kings. The thing is, the story we’ve always heard may not be all that accurate, which can be problematic for me.
I suppose a little clarification is in order after that last statement. As a kid, I swallowed the Gospel’s birth stories hook, line and sinker. Then, as I got older, I began to see discrepancies in them. There are some pretty fantastical tales in these accounts, some stretching the limits of science (like the virgin birth, discussed here), while others lack historical credibility. The story of the Magi falls into the latter category.
There are plenty of differences between the biblical account of the Magi’s visit and the traditional view, but that’s a rabbit hole I’m not going down today. Instead, I’ll stick to the Bible and the historical disparities, like talking to Herod the Great after he died (in 4 BCE), Jesus’ presence in Bethlehem for no apparent reason and a massacre of children that no one else even mentions, just to name a few. Now, this story was most likely written to show that parallels between Jesus and certain heroic deliverers of the Jewish people, namely David and Moses. But, as I said earlier, it probably didn’t happen this way. Does that mean it should be written off as fiction? No, stories can be true (and valid) whether they actually happened or not.
Nowadays, Matthew’s attempts at convincing us of Jesus’ role as Messiah can fall a little flat. And, that’s if they’re taken in the proper context; all too often, these stories are read and accepted as historical fact despite all evidence to the contrary. Do that and you lose the richness of the story, which is where a contemporary meaning can be found.
So, what might that meaning be? In the story, Herod tries to get the Magi to come back and tell him where to find Jesus so he
worship kill him. But, the Magi are warned of his intentions in a dream and take another route home. Now, in my humble opinion, theology isn’t much good if doesn’t have an effect on your everyday life, so what effect might this story have? While I will admit not many of us are ever faced with a blood-thirsty old wretch like Herod (certainly not on an everyday basis) but, every day we are faced with decisions that can make a significant difference in the lives that surround us, sometimes life-and-death differences. Instead of listening to the voice of Herod, pay attention to the dream of the Holy Spirit and see if you can find a new way home.