Texts: Matthew 2:1-12
“And I am everywhere, because I am a ray of light whose light has shone in this world from the majesty of my Father, who has sent me to fulfill everything that was spoken about me in the entire world and in every land by unspeakable mysteries, and to accomplish the commandment of my glorious Father, who by the prophets preached about me to the contentious house, in the same way as for you, as befits your faith, it was revealed to you about me.” — Revelation of the Magi 13:10
There is no other light shining in Jesus than has already always shined in the creation. Man learns to understand himself in the light of the revelation of redemption not a bit differently than he always already should understand himself in face of the revelation in creation and the law – namely, as God’s creature who is limited by God and stands under God’s claim, which opens up to him the way to death or to life. If the revelation in Jesus means salvation as an understanding of oneself in him, then the revelation in creation means nothing other than this understanding of oneself in God in the knowledge of one’s own creatureliness. — Rudolf Bultmann, “The Concept of Revelation in the New Testament”
We all know the story. Three kings, Caspar, Baltasar and Melchior, royalty from the Orient, dressed in finery and bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, travel across deserts on camel back to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. They kneel at his manger, with the animals and his parents looking on in wonder at this visit from such important, royal guests.
That story is a collage. It takes bits and pieces from history’s stories and pastes them into the happy story we know today.
I happen to like this particular piece of the collage:
A New Englander was travelling in the south at Christmastime. In a small southern town there was a “Nativity Scene” that showed great skill and talent had gone into creating it. But one aspect of the nativity was puzzling.
The three wise men were wearing firemen’s helmets.
Totally unable to come up with a reason or explanation, the New Englander stopped at a convenience story at the edge of town. He asked the lady behind the counter about the helmets who exploded into a rage, yelling, “You stupid Yankees never do read the Bible!” The northerner assured her that he did, but simply couldn’t recall anything about firemen in the Bible.
She jerked her Bible from behind the counter and ruffled through some pages, and finally jabbed her finger at a passage. Sticking it in his face she said “See, it says right here, the three wise man came from afar.”
Well, nobody can deny that what is in the bible regarding the kings, is scant. There is plenty of room for more detail.
To an extent yet to be determined, however, that is changing as we speak, especially if Oklahoma University Professor Brent Landau has anything to say about it. His translation of the pseudopigraphal text The Revelation of the Magi, (hereafter RevMagi) for his doctoral thesis in 2008 has just been published as a popular coffee table Christmas present.
(The book comes in at number 1,083 which is quite amazing. By comparison, I am reading the brand new, excellent translation of Stendahl’s The Red and the Black. It has a ranking of 704,354.)
I learned about this book and the translation of the ancient scripture, late — by Googling, in fact, for the joke, the details of which I could not remember last Sunday in my failed attempted to be humorous.
Despite the way the popular press has been presenting this, the document was not discovered by Landau in some kind of Indian Jones expedition. It has been researched off and on in modern times, and was clearly known about in the middle ages. However, Landau is the first to have published a critical English edition, and the first to have examined the fragile and disintegrating text with modern, scientific methods.
It is a rather fascinating read. While there are some points of contact in the RevMagi with the story as we read it from the Gospel of Matthew — the Magi come from the East guided by a star, and they pay a visit to King Herod, and when they arrive they offer gifts, the differences are substantial. The Magi do not need not need to be warned in a dream not to return to Herod because they see right off that he has no light, that he is “deceived,” as the text puts it. A major difference is that the light first leads them to a cave where the light is transformed into human form. Our brief reading this morning, comes from the conversation this human form has with the magi in that cave.
While all of this is interesting — what has grabbed my attention, and apparently the attention of other scholars as well, is the possibility that the author or authors of the RevMagi intended to present the gospel of Jesus in a distinctly more universalist light than may be said of other Christian scriptures.
In order to see this, again, you have to put aside your warm and fuzzy Christmas Creche scene and remind yourself that these wise men are really magicians. Magicians do not get such a good rap in the early church. You may recall Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles curses one magician, calling him the “Son of the Devil,” and blinding him. John Chrysostom the famous 2nd century preacher, urged his congregation not to dwell on the magi, for they are detrimental to God’s plan of salvation for you. The magi would not have been welcome in Jerusalem. This offended the Jewish sensibility. Matthew’s gospel does not say anything about this offense — but the fact that they got 12 verses is surprising.
The new text has a different vision, it is perhaps this vision that got it relegated to the dustbins of the Vatican. But that vision is now available for us to consider on our own, for its merits. The Revelation begins:
About the revelation of the Magi, and about their coming to Jerusalem, and about the gifts that they brought to Christ. An account of the revelations and the visions, which the kings, sons of kings, of the great East spoke, who were called Magi in the language of that land because in silence, without a sound, they glorified and they prayed. And in silence and in the mind they glorified and prayed to the exalted and holy majesty of the Lord of Life, to the holy and glorious Father, who is hidden by the great brightness of himself and is more lofty and holy than all reasoning. (RevMagi 1:1)
The scurrilous Magi are the first to worship, the first to tell of the glory of the Lord of Life as the revelation from God .
Professor Landau, in his notes to this text, remarks that Lord of Life is an infrequently used title in Jewish and Christian literature, but fairly common in Babylonian, Zoroastrian and Hindu worship materials. Here in the opening words we are given hints that revelation has more to do with who we are as humans than with who we are as citizens of a certain part of the world, or adherents to a certain belief system.
The chapter from which our text comes this morning is the new to us scene in the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries . The magi are led to a cave by the light, and Jesus appears for the first time. His first Epiphany. Chapter 13 begins — “And when it had concentrated itself, it appeared to us in the bodily form of a small and humble human, and he said to us: “Peace to you” (13:1). The rest of the chapter relates details of this first epiphany.
The purpose of his coming in human form, he says, is to “concentrate [God’s] light in its rays,” in order to reveal the majesty of God “for the sake of the redemption of the lives of human beings.” God he says, “has loved them [so] that they should not perish.” Like John 3:16, RevMagi also sees God’s love as a love for the world. Unlike John, RevMagi never blames the Jews for failing to see Jesus as the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies.
RevMagi replaces the well known anti-semetic polemic of John, with a theory of epiphany that casts the blame for failure to see God’s light on human nature. But they also suggest that revelation is possible due to human nature as well — because that which is revealed is nothing which is not always already there. “I am everywhere, because I am a ray of light whose light has shone in this world from God.”
I have no doubt that the RevMagi, could lend itself, depending on what verses you choose to isolate, to a reading of God’s revelation in Jesus as it has classically been understood. That is, the historical event of Jesus, by some supernatural force, brings us to understand the mysteries of life in such a way as to be Christian, and only in that way.
Let me repeat myself. Like any scriptural text, some will want to interpret it literally — suggesting that the transformation of the light into a human form, requires a special understanding which is inaccessible to anyone who does does not have that special understanding. Classical Christian ideas of God’s revelation in Jesus, suggest that what is revealed requires special knowledge gained via supernatural mysteries.
The text is fascinating, but this is a sermon so I want to conclude by calling you to a decision about this light.
On this reading, Jesus did not come into the world as a test, weeding from the elect, those who could not believe in his coming as a once and for all solution to our ills, On this reading, Jesus calls each of us, where we are, because that call, while once localized in a human form, is nevertheless nothing but a call to understand that which has always, already been present.
In other words, the call of Jesus is a call to be true to who we are. The call of Jesus is a call to question, again, and again, who we are so that we do not become like King Dionysius in this morning’s children’s story (Pythias and Damon) — filled with hate and mistrust because he could not think for himself, because he could not love others, but let others do that work for him.
The magi in the Gospel of Matthew have a hunch — what we have here identified as the beginning of an epiphany. That hunch became a full blown epiphany when they acted on it. And when they did, writes Matthew — they took a different road home.
So, do not let the classical reading of revelation keep you from your epiphany. But let the light lead you to see better who you are and what the road best taken for you will be.