Well today is Epiphany!
Epiphany is that day that the Church has historically celebrated the visit of the Magi or Wise Men to the infant Jesus. (At least the Western Church -- and I don't mean "Cowboy Church" or anything that has to do with John Wayne or cowboy goodness or frontier ethics -- but the European/Catholic Church as opposed to the Eastern/Orthodox Church... [they're celebrating Christmas tomorrow, for heaven's sake!] One day we should talk about this...)
Epiphany is the climax of the Advent/Christmas Season and the Twelve Days of Christmas, which are usually counted from the evening of December 25th until the morning of January 6th, which is the Twelfth Day.
(Somehow the partridge-in-a-pear-tree thing got us celebrating the Twelve Days before Christmas! When we should have been celebrating Advent - in anticipation of the birth of the Messiah. But then our hustle-bustle get-a-gift-give-a-gift mania make many of us say TGIO - Thank God It's Over and are not interested in continuing anything frenetic - or even worshipful - after New Year's Day! At least we might think it... maybe not saying it out loud!)
In doing some Protestant-boy research, here are some things I've found, and could actually be true - even though it's not all in the Bible:
- Really most of what we associate with the "Magi" is from early church traditions and what we sing at Christmas. Which at best is scanty.
- Somehow we've assumed there were three of them, since they brought three specific gifts, but the Biblical text doesn't number them (but alas, the Christmas carols do...)
- They are called "Magi" from the Latinized form of the Greek word magoi, transliterated from the Persian, for a select sect of priests. (Our word "magic" comes from the same root which somehow unjustly taints these guys from the outset.)
- Probably the ancient Magi were a hereditary priesthood of the Medes (known today as the Kurds - you hear about them in the news occasionally in Iraq and Turkey) credited with extraordinary religious knowledge. When some Magi proved to be pretty good in the interpretation of dreams - a big deal in the ancient world - Darius the Great established them as head of the state religion of Persia. (Contrary to popular belief, the Magi were not originally followers of Zoroaster. That all comes later.)
- The Magi became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian empire and continued to be prominent during the subsequent ruling empires.
Now here's where it gets interesting...
- The Babylonian captivity took devout, God-fearing, prophetic guys like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and transported them - along with their understanding of God, the Abrahamic Covenant and His plan for the nations/ethnos - to places of influence.
- One of the titles given to Daniel was Rab-mag, the Chief of the Magi (unfortunately translated "magicians" in most translations.) (DAN 4:9; 5:11)
- Daniel's unusual career included being a principal administrator in two world empires -- the Babylonian and the subsequent Persian Empire. When Darius appointed him, a Jew, over the previously hereditary Median priesthood, the resulting repercussions led to trouble involving things like the lion's den. (DAN 6)
And here, the Magi plot thickens...
- Daniel apparently entrusted a Messianic vision (maybe to be announced in due time by a "star") to a sect of the Magi for its eventual fulfillment. They like the Jews, were looking for the prophesied Messiah...
- Since the days of Daniel, the fortunes and futures of the Persian and the Jewish nations had been closely intertwined. The Persian/Parthian empire (roughly where Iran is today) was outside Roman domination and were the "enemies to the East." Palestine, under Roman domination at the time of Jesus' birth, was a buffer zone against the Parthians for the Romans.
- The Magi - rather than actually being three kings of Orient Are - were actually "king-makers!" The Magi functioning as both priests and "legislators", composed the upper house of the Council of the Megistanes (from which we get the term "magistrates"), whose duties included the absolute choice and election of the king.
Fast forward to the birth of Jesus...
- The appearance of the Magi, a group of Persian/Parthian (Iranian) "king makers" probably traveling with a large entourage with all imaginable oriental pomp, accompanied by an adequate cavalry escort to insure their safe penetration of Roman territory, alarmed Herod and the populace of Jerusalem. Yikes! Not only were they there to find his replacement (in his thinking) but they were attempting to perpetrate a border incident which could bring swift reprisal from Rome and/or Parthian armies. Their request of Herod regarding the one who "has been born King of the Jews" was a calculated insult to him, a non-Jew who had contrived and bribed his way into that office.
- Consulting his "people," Herod discovered from the prophecies that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Hiding his concern and expressing sincere interest, Herod requested them to keep him informed. (You know the story - MAT 2)
- After finding the babe and presenting their gifts, the Magi "being warned in a dream" (a form of communication with which they were familiar) departed to their own country, ignoring Herod.
The visit of the Wise Men - Epiphany - is significant in many ways...
- The Wise Men's visit opens up the universal consequences of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus...
- In Genesis 12, Abraham is called out and sent by God to places unknown, and he is promised, "...and all peoples/families/ethnic groups/people groups on the earth will be blessed through you." The Apostle Paul writes to the Galatian believers that this constitutes the Gospel as give to Abraham. The Gospel! He goes on to write, "He (God) redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles (ethnos/people groups) through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." (GAL 3:14)
- The Magi adored (prosekynesan) the Child as God, and offered Him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The giving of gifts was in keeping with Middle Eastern custom.
- The Wise Men come in worship of a Messiah who would open up the great blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant to all would believe!
- The Wise Men were probably part of the legacy of God's work through Daniel in the midst of captivity and pain...
- Devout, God-fearing, prophetic guys like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego lived out their destiny ("a non-transferable assignment from God") in such a way that it there were ramifications centuries later...
- The Magi's visit, Daniel's captivity and rise to prominence aren't just kiddie stories for Sunday School and bedtime (although it's great to use them there!) but they are about the Sovereign God of the universe using "out of the box" situations to fulfil God's plan for the nations/ethnos of the earth...
So today, let's celebrate what God has done -- what God will do in the future -- but also (and maybe most important) what He is doing right now in our lives, through us, by His grace and willful intent to fulfil His purpose!
Come on let's hear it for the Magi! After all it's Epiphany! (Should we break out turkey and all the fixin's again?)