Christmas came to an end for most of yesterday – 12th night or Epiphany which we mark today in worship – but for our Orthodox sisters and brothers it is just starting as they, following the old calendar, celebrated Christmas yesterday. Already the shops have taken down the Christmas decorations and the pre-Christmas sales have become the sales proper, those of us who work are back at work and we’re all counting the days until the end of January and payday!
So Christmas ends with the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. We don’t know much about them, we don’t know how many there were – just that they brought three gifts. We’re not sure how long after Jesus’ birth they came but there are some clues. Herod had all the boys under the age of 2 murdered and the Holy Family were, by this time, staying in a house so it’s reasonable to presume some time had elapsed since the events we celebrated on Christmas Day. So let’s reflect a little about these mysterious visitors and how St Matthew uses them in his Gospel.
Who, What and Why?
We know very little about the Magi – the Wise Men – the Kings. St Matthew doesn’t call them kings, some translations have “magi” which is the original Greek, others have “wise men” or “men who read meaning in the stars” which we would now render as “astrologers”. It is clear they are foreigners – St Matthew says they came “from the East” and the normal guesses are from Persia (what we would now call Iran), Babylon (which we’d now call Iraq) or Arabia. The medieval Church had their bones, or so they said, interred in Cologne Cathedral and there is a huge shrine there to the three kings. Quite how they got to Cologne is something of a mystery!
We know the magi studied the stars and saw meaning in their movements, they also seemed to know enough of the Jewish Bible to understand the promise of a king, or messiah, who would rule over the people. At this time, many Jewish people associated stars with angels – so a moving star might have been understood by religious Jews as a guiding angel.
St Matthew, is I think, offering an interesting bit of theology to his, mainly Jewish, readers. The Jews believed themselves to be chosen out of all the nations of the earth to be God’s people. Other nations were never quite godly enough, they worshipped idols, they believed in many gods, they didn’t have the strict morals that the Jews did and so they were looked down upon in many ways. Here, pagans are introduced into the story of Jesus’ birth and are portrayed in a much better way than the Jewish authorities.
Here, and at the end of the Gospel, it is the pagans who declare Jesus to be the Jewish king – whilst the actual Jewish authorities plot against him. The Jewish authorities at the start and end of the Gospel seek Jesus’ death. Here pagans worship Jesus, at the end of the Gospel Jewish people mock him. St Matthew, himself Jewish and writing for a Jewish audience, shows that pagans have discerned God’s purposes more clearly than the Jewish leaders. It’s quite a claim. He is saying that God is at work, and can be found, in non-Jewish cultures.
God at work in other cultures
Christians have struggled as much as Jews to cope with the idea that God can be at work in other cultures than our own. When Christians have evangelised we have often not taken seriously the culture and religious ideas of the peoples we have tried to convert – all too often this had led to murder, conquest and empire. When some Christians have tried to do things differently they have been condemned by other Christians.
When the Catholic Church first started to evangelise in China they took a long time to study the ancient Chinese culture and made links with ancestor worship and asking the saints to pray for us, they changed the liturgy of the mass to something relevant to Chinese people and they, worst of all, translated the mass into Chinese. When the authorities in Rome found out they forbade the Jesuits to continue to evangelise in this way and the work in China came to an end. I often wonder how different history may have been if that evangelistic work had continued. The authorities in Rome couldn’t see that God had been at work in Chinese culture, just as Europeans couldn’t see God at work in Native Americans or the Spanish couldn’t see God at work in native peoples in Southern America.
Yet the story in Matthew tells us that God was at work in the wisdom, culture and learning of the Magi – God’s work was so vital that it led them to Jesus. The pagan world came, in the person of these Magi, to worship Christ but they found Christ mainly through their own learning and wisdom whilst the people who should have known better were threatened and became murderous.
God at work in other cultures now?
Now all this is quite interesting but where does it get us?
The last census revealed about 10% fewer people described themselves as Christian than in the previous one. About 60% of the country now describe themselves as Christian. I don’t know what that means as only around 6% actually attend church regularly. Our culture is, largely, non-Christian and the Church struggles with this.
What, I wonder, would St Matthew make of our culture – where would he see God at work within it? Where do we see God at work in our own culture?
Perhaps he would look at the other religions present in the UK and see within them people, looking for God. Perhaps he may see God working through them more than He is able to work through the Church. Perhaps St Matthew might be impressed by the number of people who see themselves as searching for spirituality but appalled that the last place people think to look to fulfil that search is the Church.
Perhaps we might see that God is at work in our culture in much the same way that He was at work in the learning of the Magi. Last year in Manchester I was asked to speak at a forum between Christians and Muslims on secularism. The organiser thought that being anti greater secularisation in the UK would be something Muslims and Christians would agree on. However, I spoke and said that secularisation might just be a move of God’s Holy Spirit. The freedoms we enjoy – come from moving away from the union of Church and State. Our forebears in the Congregational tradition understood that a state Church can be oppressive. The right to worship as we want, to be free from state interference, the greater moves for equality and freedom over the last 60 years all came about due to greater secularisation. Of course, that came with a terrible price in terms of religious adherence but maybe that’s because the Church couldn’t follow the star where God was leading.
We, of course, applaud the moves towards greater equality but, I think something deeper is happening. God is at work in our culture bringing about this new sense of equality and justice. It has happened as a result of many factors – one of the most important being the fact that society has become more secular. But instead of moaning about this, I want to rejoice that this increasingly secular society is, in so many ways, in tune with the values of equality and justice that are part of the Kingdom.
Now this isn’t to say that everything in our culture is godly, just as everything in ancient Persia – the most likely place for the Magi to have come from – was godly. But just as God worked through Persian wisdom, learning and culture to guide the Magi, so maybe God is working through our sense of equality and justice, our sense of fair play and tolerance to work out his purposes in our own world. Instead of bemoaning the secularization, the Church should be seeing God’s work through it.
I suspect we are comfortable seeing God at work in our contemporary culture, but I wonder how comfortable we’d be thinking about how God is at work in other cultures, or other religions. How is God at work in areas of deprivation in our country? How is God at work in Islam? How is God at work in cultures we have profound difficulties with? It’s also important to ponder how God is at work in the culture of those who would oppose us.
St Matthew was Jewish but, as we have seen, was able to contrast the godly pagans with the murderous Jewish authorities in Jesus’ time – just as St Luke contrasted the godly Centurions in his Gospel with the irreligious religious leaders. God is at work in our culture, but other factors are at work too which lead away from the values of the Kingdom.
I think this complexity gives us a two-fold task. We have to both present and look for Christ. We present Christ to our world, our culture, and our friends, showing and telling the difference he has made to our lives, the sense of meaning we have from our faith, the comfort it gives us in bad times, the sense of purpose it gives us in good times. But we also have the task of looking for Christ at work in our culture. It’s easy to assume that we have Christ and others don’t, it’s easy to assume that we present Christ to a people and a culture that don’t know him. But if we realise that God’s love for the world and His ability to work in unexpected places is a reality then we will see that God is already at work in our world, our culture and our friends, just as He is at work with us.
The Magi were led by God, through their culture, to find Christ. We are led by God to find Christ in our culture and to help our friends, our family, our colleagues find Christ in their midst. This, double finding and showing is what Epiphany is all about.