It’s not so far-fetched, you know. The Magi. Them being occultic astrologers, I mean. Jesus’ entire life is predicated on learning from and uplifting voices of the unlikely. The presence of pagan strangers with expensive taste simply falls within this odd norm, along with foul-smelling shepherds and pregnant virgins.
Technically, they aren’t even classified as ‘wise folks’ in Matthew’s account. They are magicians first and foremost. They are tellers of fortunes and readers of the stars. Many theologians agree that they were practitioners of Zoroastrianism — the forerunner of Islam. Experiential spirituality flowed naturally through their veins, and it made sense to follow a star as a sign.
I grew up like most every other Christian in the world, seeing three lonely figures atop shifting camels making their way across enormous sand dunes at night. Since the pop culture idea of kingship became attributed to these figures, they always travelled fully adorned with crowns, jewels, and the finest robes. How they managed such a fearsome trek without ruining their Sunday best, I can’t say. But then again, I never really thought to ask.
Mulling over the likely possibility that this caravan included women as well as men is dazzling; even more audacious is this title ‘magi’ — magicians, occultists, astrologers. Shifting my gaze from perfectly groomed king-like men atop camels, I see wise women — hair bound and unbound — who gather secrets and mysteries of the unseen and apply their knowledge to the tangible world. I see divinity and practicality; I see passion and logic; I see curiosity and loyalty.
I see God.
Christianity has a reputation for slaughtering such wise women; for suppressing anything termed ‘occult’ by Christian state power, whether it truly is occultic or not. That Jesus-the-Toddler would have entertained such heretics as some of his first devoted followers demolishes our pagan-phobia at its roots.
Jesus didn’t evangelize this Gentile troupe; he didn’t feign love, only to star it with conditions that they needed to change their ways; he didn’t condemn; he didn’t demolish their belief systems. Only a child at the time, Jesus most likely tried to bite the gold and perhaps suck on the myrrh. As his primary advocates in the world, it’s worth pointing out that Mary and Joseph didn’t try to damn these strangers either.
In this delightful reality of God-Manifest-in-the-Gentile-Sorcerers, we see these Magi become some of the best biblical examples of civil disobedience in the Bible. Herod demands they return to him to report back on Jesus’ whereabouts.
They understand and actively submit to the power that is worth submitting to, and Herod ain’t it. Herod is the lying, vicious snake who oppresses his own people for the sake of a tiny slice of power afforded him by a greater political power. His wise men and scribes are supposedly the ones with all the answers, who know what God means in the written word. Yet the violence and tyranny they wreak across the land demonstrate that the power they wield is one of fear and hatred.
The Magi refuse to enable that power.
Two kings — Herod and Jesus. Two sets of wise folks — Herod’s entourage and the Magi. And two powers — fear and love.
While I am hesitant to use binaries to explain complex theological understandings, I also understand the writer of Matthew’s gospel’s contrast: God must enter the world not only in love, but in love as expressed through the most unlikely of people.
The kind of evil and brokenness as represented in Herod and in Rome required absurd and astonishing expressions of the Divine. And this refrain is loudly repeated even into our time today.
We believe we know how God is working in the world and through whom. We diminish or defy anyone who appears to set themselves up against our norms. Throughout our small two millennia, we have done away with wise woman after wise woman, astrologer after astrologer, witch after witch, and pagan after pagan. Both in the most literal of senses, as well as the deeply metaphorical ones.
As our power is embedded, we can’t abide God manifesting God’s self in the unlikely or the absurd. It’s like they become our kryptonite.
And yet it happens. Again and again.
You’d think we’d learn. We keep killing those who find God in ways different from ours, and yet they keep returning to express love right in front of our very eyes.
Thank God for the Magi — those mysterious strangers from the East who read the stars and looked into the future. Thank God that the Holy Family saw God in them, and welcomed them. Thank God that these wisest of people saw through toxic power so well that they outright defied its commands.
I need to see God here. In the unlikely. In the marginalized. This is where love dissolves fear and dismantles the power structures of the nations.