After all my insistence this Advent about how little I care
about the historicity of the virgin birth, Jesus’ birthplace, and so on, it would be
a little inconsistent of me to go through the usual round of debunking that goes on with the
wise men: they came to a house, not a manger; there’s no evidence there were
three; they were not kings but magi. Yes.
Who were they? The
only thing that seems very clear is that Matthew wants us to know they were
pagan. They were from “the East,” and most likely astrologers. Not Torah-observant,
as far as anyone can tell. The Church has at least had the grace to remind us
of this fact every Epiphany and point out that outsiders came to worship Jesus, to offer gifts, and in some sense, to reveal who Jesus was.
But their origin in the East has another layer of meaning
that eluded me until I recently read Richard Swanson’s Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, in
which he points out that visitors from the East were most likely coming from
places that, for the Jews, meant empire, tyrranny, and exile. Visitors from Babylon and Assyria had
been Very Bad News for Jesus’ people for many generations, and the memories
evoked by Rachel’s weeping in chapter two would be memories of seeing God’s
people marched off to exile in the East.
The fact that these pagans show up to worship is also a
reminder that not all the exiles returned. Some faithful Jews remained in Babylon, and others no
doubt slid eastward in their religious observances as well, blurring the lines
between Jew and Pagan. Perhaps some of these never-returned exiles were
ancestors to some of the Magi. In any case, Matthew’s readers would be reminded
that God’s promises had seeped beyond the bounds of Palestine, and even beyond the bounds of official Torah observance, generations ago.
Who are the Magi coming to us today, clear that they are not
one-of-us but ever so curious about Jesus, and so, so generous with their
seeking and their seemingly impractical gifts? How do we receive them?