2 We Three Kings --The Search for JesusFrom Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary
"Those who live at the greatest distance from the means of grace often use most diligence, and learn to know the most of Christ and his salvation. But no curious arts, or mere human learning, can direct men unto him. We must learn of Christ by attending to the word of God, as a light that shineth in a dark place, and by seeking the teaching of the Holy Spirit. What joy these wise men felt upon this sight of the star, none know so well as those who, after a long and melancholy night of temptation and desertion, under the power of a spirit of bondage, at length receive the Spirit of adoption, witnessing with their spirits that they are the children of God."
This sermon will consist of excerpts from several sources, but the bottom line to which we will be wending is the symbology of the Wise Men who use the art of nature to search for Jesus.
You would think that, chronologically, a sermon on the Three Wise Men would come AFTER Christmas, because that is when the Wise Men are traditionally thought to have come to the manger, January 6th, to be precise. I have chosen this strategy because it is with the same fervor of seek-to-find, that preoccupied the three kings, that I am preparing myself to solemnize the anniversary of the coming of the Messiah into the world; and it is with the same wonder that illuminated the eyes of the Magi on that first day of Epiphany, that I hope to contemplate the savior lying in a manger on Christmas Day in the morning.
The symbology of the Magi divides neatly into two distinct stages of discovery; seeking is the first stage, while the finding is merely the culmination of a much longer process. When you think about it, the thinking about the symbol, the preparation for the spiritual symbol, takes a lot more time,, and is lot more involved than the actual revelation of the spiritual reality. The fact is that, although the Three Kings are usually associated with Epiphany, the FINDING of Jesus, the moment of RECOGNITION in which the Christ Presence is made manifest to Man, this is not the whole story--there is the whole issue of the SEARCH for Jesus that preceded the FINDING. Thus, seeking and finding are very much a part of the Christmas season. Looking back and looking forward may be thought of in the same way. Remember our discussion of sehnsucht as the intense joy of unfulfilled desire, and our discussion of HOPE as the realization of a future good brought into the present.
Munachi E. Ezeogu, CSSP says:
“We are all seekers. There is something about this time of year that reveals the hunger in our hearts, this yearning for something.”
The Wise Men must have been filled with longing, a yearning for an undefined reality which, when it finally fell on them in that first moment of epiphany, must have been as overwhelming as it was transforming. How the realization of an expectation must have been completely unexpected! How it must have looked so completely different, from what they thought they were going to see, how new! How they must have struggled, in those first few moments, to get their minds around such a radical departure from the past.
The Rev. Shawn Hughes, Queen’s University, Ontario:
“This is exactly what this feast day is about – change – transformation. Our spiritual lives can never be stagnant, they must always be moving, always be seeking, always striving for that more intimate experience of Christ. ... The Magi are transformed by the revelation at the end of their journey. They live on uncomfortably as men of the new dispensation among people of the old. That is a lifelong spiritual tension with which we must all learn to live. ... The spiritual journey is long. The journey is difficult. But, like the Magi, the reward is so great we leave completely transformed. The reward is not possible without the journey.”
In this preceding paragraph we have heard how the Kings existed in two time frames at once, the old and the new--the older frame of reference was the seeking of they knew-not-what, and the new is the moment of finding they know-not-how-to-say.
Writes scholar David W. Congdon:
"The quest of the Magi has been the topic of poems, stories and artwork for centuries. For C.S. Lewis, the Magi teach us to see the universe through a “baptized” lens: they understood that the world is infused with significance, and they were willing to trust what they saw and experienced. We too are called to see the star, trust our instincts and act. Our lives, T.S. Eliot says in Journey of the Magi, will never be the same:
"'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death."
Before we go any deeper into the symbology of the wise men, let us turn to Wikipedia, to provide some background information, all of which is very entertaining, and very useful in filling out Christmas trivia questionnaires:
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
"The Magi (play /ˈmædʒaɪ/; Greek: μάγοι, magoi), also referred to as the (Three) Wise Men, (Three) Kings, or Kings from the East, were, according to Christianity, a group of distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity celebrations of Christmas and are an important part of the Christian tradition.
The Gospel of Matthew, the only one of the four Canonical gospels to mention the Magi, states that they came "from the east" to worship the Christ, "born King of the Jews." Although the account does not tell how many they were, the three gifts led to a widespread assumption that they were three as well. In the East, the magi traditionally number twelve. Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is probably linked to Psalms 72:11, "May all kings fall down before him".
The New Revised Standard Version of Matthew 2:1–12 describes the visit of the Magi:
"In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path."
They are mentioned twice shortly thereafter, in reference to their avoidance of Herod after seeing Jesus, and what Herod had learned from their earlier meeting.
[Sidebar: I don't think it is a trivial point that seeking the truth is very often an activity that is accompanied by danger. The truth always represents a threat to those who are small- minded, and determined to avoid change. Indeed, the idea of change must necessarily be thought of as the object of the seeking process, even if we don't know what that change will consist of. We know that we are seeking something we lack, and that, when we achieve what we lack, there must be change. Since change is always a threat to the status quo, is always a threat to the left brain's insistence on rational sequentiality and definition, change will always be perceived as a threat to those who insist more on thinking that they are right than on thinking what is true. Thus, for the rigid-minded individual, apart from the familiarity and sanctity of repeated traditions and rituals, Christmas ought to be a terrifying time. For those of us who enjoy change, and who are prepared for change, the meeting of the past in the face of the emerging present is both terrifying and wonderful at the same time. Hoo-yah!
Back to Wikipedia:]
The Magi are popularly referred to as wise men and kings. The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from Greek μάγος magos, as used in the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew. Greek magos itself is derived from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan magâunô, i.e. the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born. The term refers to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars, and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic. Translated in the King James Version as wise men, the same translation is applied to the wise men led by Daniel of earlier Hebrew Scriptures (Daniel 2:48). The same word is given as sorcerer and sorcery when describing "Elymas the sorcerer" in Acts 13:6–11, and Simon Magus, considered a heretic by the early Church, in Acts 8:9–13.
The three Magi (Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior)
Traditions identify a variety of different names for the Magi. In the Western Christian church they have been commonly known as:
Melchior, a Persian scholar
Caspar, an Indian scholar
Balthazar, an Arabian scholar.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi found Jesus by 'following' a star, which thus traditionally became known as the Star of Bethlehem. Various theories have been presented as to what this phenomenon refers to, since stars do not visibly move and therefore cannot be followed. Some believe that they followed a planet, which without a telescope could be mistaken as a star, as it slowly moved across the sky.
On finding him, they gave him three symbolic gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Warned in a dream that Judean king Herod intended to kill the child, they decided to return home by a different route. This prompted Herod to resort to killing all the young children in Bethlehem, an act called the Massacre of the Innocents, in an attempt to eliminate a rival heir to his throne. Jesus and his family had, however, escaped to Egypt beforehand. After these events they passed into obscurity. The story of the nativity in Matthew glorifies Jesus, likens him to Moses, and shows his life as fulfilling prophecy.
The historian of Christianity, Sebastian Brock, has said:
"It was no doubt among converts from Zoroastrianism that… certain legends were developed around the Magi of the Gospels".
And Anders Hutgård concluded that the Gospel story of the Magi was influenced by an Iranian legend concerning magi and a star, which was connected with Persian beliefs in the rise of a star predicting the birth of a ruler and with myths describing the manifestation of a divine figure in fire and light.
The Magi are described as "falling down", "kneeling" or "bowing" in the worship of Jesus. This gesture, together with the use of kneeling in Luke's birth narrative, had an important effect on Christian religious practices. They were indicative of great respect, and typically used when venerating a king. Inspired by these verses, kneeling and prostration were adopted in the early Church. While prostration is now rarely practiced in the West, it is still relatively common in the Eastern Churches, especially during Lent. Kneeling has remained an important element of Christian worship to this day."
I find it very interesting that so many of our religious ceremonies come from the accepted reports of the Magi-behavior--the "kneeling" is just one element of the whole royalty obeisance bit. The reference to Jesus as the "King of Kings, and Lord of Lords" definitely puts Jesus, as a descendant of the House of David, into the upper social class of a world in which class consciousness was (and is) a major indicator of the prestige enjoyed by royalty. I really think Jesus has to laugh at this--I believe He must be more democratic in His social attitudes, at the same time being aware that all men are NOT created equal.
Of course, the main Magi-behavior we imitate today is the gift-giving. Thus, with the following Martin Luther excerpt, our discussion of the Wise Men shifts from seeking to giving gifts.
Sermon for the Epiphany; Matthew 2:1-12:A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil of 1522.
"3.This Gospel harmonizes with the Epistle and speaks of the temporal coming of the heathen to Christ, by which their spiritual coming to Christ, mentioned in the Epistle, is signified and commenced. It is both a terrifying and consoling Gospel: terrifying to the great and wise, the self-satisfied and the mighty, because they all reject Christ; consoling to the humble and despised, because to them alone Christ is revealed.
4. These wise men are usually called the three Kings. As not much depends on this, we will grant this opinion to the simple minded people. However, it is not known whether there were two, three or more. But they certainly came from the rich country Arabia or Sheba, which is evident from their gifts viz. gold, frankincense and myrrh. All three of these are very precious in that country. It can certainly not be assumed that they had bought these elsewhere, for it is customary in these Eastern countries to do homage and make presents of the choice fruits and wealth of the country. just like Jacob commanded his sons to carry presents of the choice fruits of the land to Joseph in Egypt. Gen. 43, 11. Had these gifts of the wise men not been of their own country, why should they then have brought frankincense, myrrh and gold produced in the land of Judea, instead of silver and precious stones or fruits of some other country?
5. Therefore these gifts were not presented to Christ like artists paint the scenery that one offers gold, another frankincense and the third myrrh, but they presented the gifts in common as one man. And probably there were quite a number present, a few of them being the leaders, just as now a prince or a city sends a few brave men as messengers to the emperor with presents.
6. The Evangelist calls these men wise men which means in German weissager, i. e. (predictors, diviners); not in the same manner as the prophets predicted, but like those whom we call wise men and wise women, who can tell people all kinds of things; who know a great deal about the secret arts and follow adventures. The art of such people is called magic, which is sometimes accomplished by the black arts and the help of the devil, but not in all things as by the witches and sorcerers. For the wise men imitate the true prophets and prophesy like the true prophets, though not by the spirit of God. For this reason they sometimes happen to be correct as their work is not, like that of the witches, altogether the devil's work, but rather human reason aided by the devil.
7. Again, their miraculous deeds are not altogether done by the devil's cunning, like the doings of the witches, but by a combination of natural forces and the power of the devil. Hence a magician always imitates the real natural arts. For there are many hidden forces in nature, and he who knows how to apply them performs miracles in the eyes of those who know no better as, for instance, the alchemists make gold out of copper.
8. Of these secret forces of nature Solomon knew a great deal by the spirit of God, and made good use of this knowledge when he judged between the two women concerning the living and the dead child, I Kings 3, 25, discovering the real mother by appealing to the deepest feelings of nature. Again, Jacob also made use of this art when he used the peeled rods and the flocks brought forth speckled and spotted lambs, Gen. 30,39.
9. This is a fine and a truly natural art by which is derived all that physicians and others know about the properties of herbs, plants, metals, stones etc. The Scriptures also recognize this art when they make comparisons of animals, stones, trees, plants etc. This art was especially practiced and studied among the Persians, Arabians and in other Eastern countries, was an honorable art and made wise people.
10. But later on swine and block-heads meddled with it, as usually happens with all arts and doctrines, and have gone far from the truth, have confounded this noble art with juggling and sorcery, and have tried to follow and master both. But when they could not do this, they relinquished the real art and became jugglers and conjurers, prophesying and do-ing miracles by the help of the devil, though sometimes through the forces of nature. For the devil has retained much of this art and at times uses it through the magicians. Thus the word magic has become disreputable, meaning nothing else now than foretelling and doing miraculous deeds through the evil spirit, though at times it is reliable and helps men because natural forces, which are always reliable, are coupled with it and used by evil spirit.
11. Hence these magi or wise men were not kings, but men learned and experienced in this natural art though without doubt they also practiced conjury. Even to this day men from these eastern countries are possessed of great and various magic powers and, when this real art ceased, being despised they brought forth sorcery and spread it throughout the world but prior to this they relied entirely on the course of the heavenly bodies. Thus presumptuous human reason has always mixed and disgraced that which was good by imitation and indiscretion, attempting to ape everything that it sees and bears. Hence false prophets imitate the true prophets, false work-righteous saints the true saints, and the falsely learned the truly learned. If we look at the world we will find, that the work of human reason is but aping to imitate the good, only perverts it and thus deceives itself and others.
12. These wise men, therefore, were nothing else than what the philosophers were in Greece and the priests in Egypt, and the learned among us in the universities. In short, they were the priests and learned in the rich country of Arabia; just as if learned men are priests from the universities were now sent to a prince with presents. For the universities also claim that they teach natural arts which they call philosophy while in reality they are teaching not only tomfoolery, but also poisonous error and idle dreams.
13. For the natural art, which was formerly called magic but now physiology, is to learn the forces and work of nature; as for example, that a deer with its breath through the nose will draw a snake from the crevice in the rocks, kill and eat it and then on account of the great heat of the poison pants for cooling streams as stated in Ps. 42, 1. Again, that a weasel will induce a snake to come out of its hiding place by wagging its tail before the opening to anger and excite the snake; and then lies in wait so that, when the snake looks up after its enemy the weasel fastens its teeth in the neck of the snake below the venomous fang and thus killing its enemy in its own house.
Such arts the wise men studied, and in them is concealed a great deal of wisdom concerning Christ as well as the conduct of men in life. But this art is not taught in the universities now. Hence even the peasants know more about it than our wise men or natural masters who are not wrongfully called natural fools, because in spite of so much labor and trouble they have only retrograded and are the devil's mockingbirds. If we would therefore truly interpret this Gospel we must say: The masters of nature from the East or the naturalists from Arabia have come.
30. But how these wise men could see in this star a sign that unmistakably signified a new- born king, I do not know. Perhaps they read in their histories and chronicles that aforetime the birth of other kings had been signified in the heavens or through a star. For we find also in the histories of the Romans and the Greeks that the coming or birth of some great princes and extraordinary men had been foretold by miracles and signs in the air and in the heavens. These wise men also knew quite well that these Jews were the chosen people of God, who were and had been above all other people, especially favored of God. Therefore, as this was such a beautiful star, they certainly thought that God had given this people a new king. But the claim of some that these wise men knew the saying of Balaam: "There shall come forth a star out of Jacob," etc. (Num. 24, 17), will avail nothing, as this speaks mainly of the spiritual coming of Christ, who is the star himself. But whoever is not satisfied with this may think as he pleases about it. Perhaps they knew all by divine revelation."
This preceding Martin Luther excerpt is quite involved and has many intertwining ideas. Perhaps the most important overarching point, that Luther is making, is that: as we seek the Christ, and we give him his presents, we must be careful to remember that Jesus does not suffer fools; finding the precise distinction between magic philosophy and true spirituality is a slippery slope, a razor's edge. I find that the whole idea of the word "Magi" leading to "Magic" is an untrivial philological coincidence, and is emblematic of the feeling of magic and wonder associated with our Christmas traditions and ceremonies. But cultivating wonder does not mean accepting false prophets for mere dramatic effect; neither does the fact that there are false prophets out there mean that every strange and new thing is also false. Every natural event must be evaluated on its own merits, with an open heart and mind. Thus as we seek, and find, and then give, we must make sure that we are seeking the right thing, finding the right thing, and giving of ourselves, our truest selves and not counterfeits. With Jesus as our arbiter and interpreter we cannot go wrong.
The following Rudolf Steiner excerpt throws some significant light on the quality of the symbology of the gifts of the Magi:
Rudolph Steiner: The Festivals and Their Meaning: I Christmas--On The Three Magi: Schmidt Number: S-0994 VI (Extract from a lecture) Berlin, 30th December, 1904 GA B60
"You will remember that I have spoken of the meaning of the Christmas Festival in its connection with the evolution of races, or, better said, the epochs of civilisation, and indeed the significance of the Festival lies in this very connection both in respect of the past and of the future.
I want to speak to-day about a Festival to which in modern times less importance is attached than to the Christmas Festival itself, namely, the Festival of the Three Kings, of the Magi who came from the East to greet the newly born Jesus. This Festival of the Epiphany (celebrated on the 6th of January) will assume greater and greater significance when its symbolism is understood.
It will be obvious to you that very profound symbolism is contained in the Festival of the Three Magi from the East. Until the 15th century, this symbolism was kept very secret and no definite indications were available. But since that century some light has been thrown on the Festival of the Magi by exoteric presentations. One of the Three Kings — Caspar — is portrayed as a Moor, an inhabitant of Africa; one as a white man, a European — Melchior; and one — Balthasar — as an Asiatic; the colour of his skin is that of an inhabitant of India. They bring Myrrh, Gold and Frankincense as offerings to the Child Jesus in Bethlehem.
These three offerings are full of meaning and in keeping with the whole symbolism of the Festival celebrated on the 6th of January. Exoterically, the date itself throws some light; esoterically, the Festival is pregnant with meaning. The 6th of January is the same date as that on which, in ancient Egypt, the Festival of Osiris was celebrated, the Festival of the re-finding of Osiris. As you know, Osiris was overcome by his enemy Typhon: Isis seeks and eventually finds him. This re-finding of Osiris, the Son of God, is represented in the Festival of the 6th of January. The Festival of the Three Kings is the same Festival, but in its Christian form. This Festival was also celebrated among the Assyrians, the Armenians and the Phoenicians. Everywhere it is a Festival connected with a kind of universal baptism — a rebirth from out of the water.
Of this epoch the Bible says: ‘The Spirit of God brooded over the waters.’ The principle of Love was not within the beings, but outside, manifesting as earthly Kama (that is to say, earthly passion or desire). Kama is egotistic love. The first bringer of Love free of all egoism is Christ Who appeared in the body of Jesus of Nazareth.
Who are the Magi? They represent the Initiates of the three preceding races or epochs of culture, the Initiates of mankind up to the time of the coming of Christ, the Bringer of the Love that is free of egoism — the resurrected Osiris.
By what are the Three Holy Kings guided, and whither are they led? They are guided by a Star to a grotto, a cave in Bethlehem. This is something that can be understood only by one who has knowledge of the so-called lower, or astral mysteries. To be led by a Star means nothing else than to see the soul itself as a Star. But when is the soul seen as a Star? When a man can behold the soul as a radiant aura. But what kind of aura is so radiant that it can be a guide? There is the aura that glimmers with only a feeble light; such an aura cannot guide. There is a higher aura, that of the intelligence, which has, it is true, a flowing, up-surging light, but is not yet able to guide. But the bright aura, aglow with Budhi, is in very truth a Star, is a radiant guide. In Christ, the Star of Budhi lights up — the Star which accompanies the evolution of mankind. The Light that shines before the Magi is the soul of Christ Himself. The Second Logos Himself shines before the Magi and over the cave in Bethlehem.
The Festival of the Three Kings is celebrated every year on the 6th of January, and its significance will steadily increase. Men will understand more and more what a Magi is, and what the great Magi, the Masters, are. And then understanding of Christianity will lead to understanding of spiritual science."
To reiterate the subject line of this sermon:
the bottom line to which we will be wending is the symbology of the Wise Men who use the art of nature to search for Jesus.By that we mean that, the search for Jesus may involve the seeker in signs and symbols that appear in the natural world, but which resonate in Eternity. As the search evolves, the seeker is transformed in unexpected ways, and the final Epiphany is a Rite of Passage into a new world. This arrival results in an out-pouring of spiritual gifts which, again, symbolize spiritual realities potent with energy and meaning.
This last quote of today's sermon is taken from the very end of my favorite Christmas movie The Bishop's Wife. It is a Christmas Eve sermon delivered by the Bishop at the end of the movie, and is a profound reflection on the best Christmas presents we can give to each other and to Jesus on his birthday:
"Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking. Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child's cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven't forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer, and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled -- all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It's his birthday we are celebrating. Don't ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most, and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth."
Let us pray: Jesus, as the enactment of your birth approaches, let us open our eyes to the magic of the Magi, and discover with them the incalculable gifts you have given to us in the infinity of Your love. Amen