In the Sunberg home, there is no nativity scene. Mary and Joseph aren’t there. No angel. No lights. No animals. No wise men. The stable, some 25 years old now, is tucked into a forgotten corner of the hallway empty, dark, and cold. The sad story of the demise of the Sunberg creche began 15 years ago when I borrowed the idea of incrementally moving the characters of the nativity each day of December on a journey through the house towards that stable. I suppose it was the delicate nature of our figurines being moved by clumsy hands that co-opted their travels, but the tradition morphed into an empty and waiting manger until Christmas Eve. With candles lit and the Christmas story read by Jay, we sing together as a family while I pull each character from their package, carefully unwrap it, and give it to a family member to mark their place on that holy night. It is a final celebratory gathering of all creatures great and small into the stable on the eve of Christ’s birth. I justified the change by arguing that it was a truer representation of Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem. The family accepted my logic and it became a beloved tradition, but lately, I’ve been wondering about those wise men that bow over the baby with their gifts – those magi from the East.
I’ve been wondering about those wise men that bow over the baby with their gifts – those magi from the East.
Their eastern skin was certainly darker, the tones of their syllables heavily accented or maybe even unintelligible, and their religion, most probably pagan. We’ve grown so accustomed to those figures that serve our aesthetic preferences, that I wonder if any of us registers the irony anymore of their presence? Foreign men from the east make a journey that was traced into the sky by God’s hand and deciphered through the lens of a star-gazing, pagan religious mix of science, astronomy, and astrology. God help us all, but do those foreign men from the east really belong here in our Christian story? It seems odd, radical, maybe even offensive to entertain the presence of those magi into the holy event that was Christ’s advent into earth.
God help us all, but do those foreign men from the East really belong here in our Christian story?
There is a fair amount of disagreement on who they were. Many scholars say they were Persian (modern day Iran), but some say they were from the kingdom of Sheba in the Arabian peninsula (modern day Yemen). They may have been Zoroastrians. What is sure is that they do not fit, religiously, socially, or ethnically, into the scene of a very Jewish Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. They should not be there and yet, there they are at the end of a journey written by a strange and wonderful alchemy of star-reading and faith. It’s almost as if, well, it’s almost as if God intended the sub-theme of his enfleshment into Jewish skin to be inclusion. The intersection of peace on earth with God’s breaking-in-kingdom looks a little odd with the animal world, the royal line of David, a nursing woman, work-weary shepherds, and foreigners all squeezed in together to breathe on baby Jesus.
It’s almost as if, well, it’s almost as if God intended the sub-theme of his enfleshment into Jewish skin to be inclusion.
One of the many mysteries of that gathering of improbable worshippers is that the incarnation narrative gives us few details about the motivation of this heathen court. They seek out a king because the stars tell them to do so, they certainly paid homage to the infant, they gave him gifts, and they disobeyed Herod’s decree. We hope, but we do not know, if they converted to belief in Jesus as the Christ. So, it is the Christian community’s acceptance of their pagan presence in the holy scene that sometimes baffles me. These pagan mystics of the East are welcome in our ancient story, but, in the midst of our daily journey nestled between current events, life, and the news, our version of Christianity seems too narrow to imagine that the presence of foreigners may be a gift to us today.
We question the motivations of those who journey towards us, yet God revealed himself to the magi in the midst of their cultures in ways that they could understand. As the magi seek him in our ancient story, we are given glimpses of the beautiful power and desire of God’s grace to draw all of creation into his presence. This is God’s good news for each of us: He wants us with him.
Here in this third week of Advent, I find myself wondering if those magical, probably Persian wise men with their gifts, and their journey, and their strange smells and odd languages and foreign beliefs lingered anywhere in the back of the mind of Jesus when he said, ‘Ask and it will be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.’ How oddly wonderful that two-thousand years later, it is the act of seeking that readies our hearts for his advent.
Jay and I sat together in a Nazarene church in a location that has become a pooling point for thousands of travelers from the East. The world calls them refugees, but Jesus sees them as his beloved creation. There was a Syrian worship team leading in Arabic and a Persian team leading in Farsi and people on a journey who don’t yet call him Lord, and people from the host country, and a small handful of Americans, and all of us gathered in together bending down or gazing up to get a look at Christ. It was a tiny glimpse into the sights, smells, and sounds of heaven.
Over and again throughout the Middle Eastern world, the ancient story is being repeated again today if we simply lean in and open our ears to hear. Only Matthew tells us of those foreign eastern men who mysteriously seek a king in the message of a star. As we retell their story every Advent, our focus is always on their arrival. Maybe we have missed a key part of the message? While they seek a king by the miracle of a star, God initiates their departure by appearing to them in a dream. In this Christmas tale of ours, dreams seem to have significant substance as a means by which God protects his redemptive plan and speaks to his children. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, the Holy family is sent into exile in Egypt in a dream and the magi are sent home via a different route through a dream. Given the details of the story, we might conclude that God loves these foreign men from the East.
Given the details of the story, we might conclude that God loves these foreign men from the East.
On that evening sitting in a Nazarene church full of modern-day foreigners from the East, the story that I heard over and again told in Farsi and told in Arabic, and translated for me into English were testimonies of seekers on a journey. They are people who once served as religious leaders of another faith, they are men who once served in other armies, they are fathers and sons who have now been disowned by their families. And their story goes like this, “Jesus came to me in a dream while I was on a journey.”
I think my hands might shake a little this Christmas Eve as I unwrap those three magi from the safety of their boxes. The gifts they bear for me, for my family, and for our world teach us to seek, to give, and to receive in the midst of a world full of questions, uncertainty, and danger.
In these days of our December journey toward that manger, we are wise to seek Christ because this is what we know beyond any doubt: God wants us with him.
This post is dedicated to my friend Chris Orred Jani who has told, retold, and described the intriguing and exotic details of the magi to me. They have become my favorite people in the nativity with the exception of baby Jesus, of course. These wise men, from whom we get the word magic, were probably Persian, but maybe even North African, and they were a headily exotic mix of scientist, astronomer, and astrologist and probably Zoroastrians. They arrive to the birth late, they courageously disregard king Herod’s orders, and they are travelers of far-away lands. Both Chris and the magi have pointed me to an awesome truth: God wants all of us with him. God so loved the world that he gave his only son …