Epiphany.19 “Magic” Matt. 2:1-12
It’s a question no one asked till around the 16th century. The Magi: were they Kings or Magi or Magicians or Wise Men? For 1500 years or so, the pastors of the church kept enough Greek in their hip pockets to know that the Greek μαγοι means Magicians. So how did they become “wise men” in the King James (normally Jesus’ Standard Version 🙂 in 1611? Well, good question! It’s not that Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Bancroft (the lead translators for the King) didn’t know the Greek means “Magicians”. They knew. It was just that their bias trumped their fidelity to the original Greek. They recognized that the Magi were Christians—exemplary Christians(!), and they didn’t think any Christian would practice magic, equating it as they did in those days with the sorcery God forbids in the Scriptures, so they got changed from Magicians to “Wise Men”. Very smart, but unmagical dudes…
And so they have remained in the English speaking world ever since—except with liberal scholars of the 19th century on, who don’t believe in Magic at all, don’t believe in anything spooky or supernatural or divine, or mysterious or impervious to scientistic, rationalistic explanation. These “scholars” have invented a new definition of “Magi”. In the old days there was no difference in meaning between Magi and Magicians (Magus and Magician being the singular forms). But these wise guy “scholars”, not believing in anything fun or magical or mysterious, the ultimate party poopers, shifted the meaning of Magi from Magician to “pagan astrologer of Persian persuasion”. Their agenda being that faith is not essential to salvation and they wanted the Magi to be mascots for a syncretistic religion that eschews Christian orthodoxy in favor of a mash-up of atheism, astrology, firstpeoples paganism as all equally valid paths to salvation. I obviously abominate this view, but I still routinely use the word “Magi” because we’re taking it back, restoring the original sense. But let me be clear that I recognize Magi and Magicians as synonyms. (Maybe I should just consistently say: “Magicians”?) Anyway, these kill-joy clowns don’t believe the Magicians could do magic, and insist they were astrologer charlatans like Miss Cleo who’d give you a bogus “fortune” for 50 bucks.
On the conservative side (the equally dull and fun-killing mirror image of the extreme left) the preference was to avoid the terms magi, magicians, wise men entirely and just say “Kings”. This was the group that brought us beloved hymns like “We Three Kings of Orient Are”. They were well familiar with our Old Testament reading that prophesied the visit of the Magicians and clearly see that Isaiah says they are Kings—Kings who come to the brightness of Christ’s rising—bringing gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These “scholars” just fall off the horse on the other side (somewhere in the vicinity of the King James translators’ misguided piety) trumping a common sense reading of the text and destroying a good bit of the fun in it.
These “conservative scholars” see “King” in Isaiah but project some silly, modernist ideas onto Scripture. Since modern kings are hardly “wise men” (and never magical!) they figured these ancient Kings must have been none too wise or magical either, just politicians seeking power and attention—thereby sucking all the magic and mystery out of the Story.
But the error here is too narrow a definition of “King”—thinking King can only mean a recognized head of state. That may be the modern type of “king” but in the ancient world, “Kings” were not usually heads of large government bureaucracies. Yes, they ruled. Yes, they’re aristocrats. But real Kings were and are always too smart to get caught up in politics. Their greatest power is to disappear from public view, tabloid journals, history books.
Rule can be exercised in lots of ways. To think that unless you are the head of a state bureaucracy, you don’t really reign is a narrow vision! The True King never reveals Himself so clearly, but reigns graciously over His subjects in quiet, hidden Ways. Why get trapped into having to pass legislation, wrangle with Congress, hold court, and open shopping malls? The True King is above such menial and onerous things, exercises His power in more magical, subtle Ways, slipping through the angry mob’s fingers even when they do notice Him.
Put another way: do you really think a real Magician would not rule, is not a King? Is Gandalf really less regal and royal than Aragorn? If you think Magicians aren’t truly Kings, you need to reread “Lord of the Rings”!
Magic makes us uncomfortable—it plunges us into mysteries beyond our ken, things to wonderful for us, powers too powerful for us to safely wield; it would take a real King to handle Real Magic. I’m sorry I can’t catalog for you the exact nature of the ancient Magi’s powers, because the Scriptures keep a veil over that sort of thing. But we see the faithful prophets like Elijah and Elisha can do magic—bring rain or drought, fire from heaven, bears from the woods to maul their enemies, make axe heads float, heal disease, raise the dead. Faith and real Magic are by no means opposed, but on the contrary: the True Faith channels the greatest Magic. I suspect the Magicians from the East who came to Bethlehem that first Epiphany had serious skills. I think the last sentence of our Gospel, how the Magicians were divinely warned in a dream not to return to Herod was for Herod’s protection, not theirs! They would have messed Herod up good, I think, but God wasn’t ready for Herod to die quite yet…
But there was room for growth even for these Magicians. God messed with them a bit, caused them to loose sight of their star. The run-in with Herod was a little lesson that Magic is a gift to be exercised by Faith in the Word; but when we get cocky and use it like it’s ours by right, bad things happen and a lot of innocent kids can get killed. The Magi have that on their consciences!!!
But the real Epiphany happens when they meet the real King of Kings, the only One. And I would say this Epiphany is something often missed. It’s not that Jesus is Lord and Christ and God. They knew that already! The Real Epiphany is how Christ uses His Magic, what the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time really looks like…
Our magic tricks have not worked out so well. As Warren Zevon put it: “I can saw a woman in two/ but you won’t want to look in the box when I’m through/ I can make love disappear./ For my next trick, I’ll need a volunteer”. And Jesus steps right up. He is the Volunteer. Now, I’ve been to Jerusalem. Looked in the box of His tomb, when we were through with Him. I see He’s made sin, death, and hell disappear—turned our worst into His very best, became what we are so we’d become what He is…
Jesus uses His magic not to become powerful, rich, and well loved. No. He uses His magic to become little, weak, and despised!—not to lift rocks too big to lift, but to be crushed Himself (who cannot die!) by the Rock of Sin that hangs over our heads. “He who built the starry skies, lowly in a manger lies.” That’s magic! But why use your Magic like this? Why!???
Maybe… to give us an Epiphany of Real Magic? Show us His best trick?—make sin, death, hell disappear (a trick which He teaches us by Faith alone!)? This Epiphany makes real Magicians everywhere open up their treasures and present them to Him so that He will work His Magic on them (and us, too!) in the worship of the Crucified King—where, losing all for Christ’s sake, sharing his Cross, His Magic makes Peace, surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.