The Epiphany Of Our Lord Observed
S. Epiphany (Observed) 1.7.24 Matt. 2:1-12
“Now then, Jesus being born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold: μαγοι from the east came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the rising and have come to worship him’.”
And these μαγοι—what were they, exactly? Wise men? Kings? Eastern sages? These are the popular translations (or just “magi” and leave you to figure it out). Now, the μαγοι certainly were all those things—wise, regal sages. But μαγοι is the same word used for the Egyptian wizards in Pharaoh’s court that Moses contended with. And quite plainly, the bible shows us (beyond argument!) that μαγοι are wizards who—in addition to being wise, regal, and sagely—had supernatural powers, secret arts, long lost, unknown to modern science. (!!!)
Moses, at God’s behest, threw down his staff and turned it into a snake. But Pharaoh’s μαγοι threw down their staffs and turned them into snakes, too; but Moses’ snake ate their (weaker) snakes. Gross! But… cool! Wizard wars! Excellent! That’s my favorite thing! And the contest went on. Moses turned water into blood. So did the μαγοι by their “secret arts”! Moses conjured hordes of magical frogs that covered the land. The μαγοι did the same (and it was very gross!)!
But three strikes and the Egyptian μαγοι were out. Moses conjured gnats from the dust that plagued man and beast (biting gnats that drove everyone insane!). The μαγοι tried to duplicate the magic gnats, but failed and said, intriguingly: “This is the finger of God!” I presume that’s uh, the middle finger letting the Egyptians know they’re #1 on his naughty list 😉
Wizards. That’s who came to Jerusalem for Christmas. I like wizard better than magician to translate μαγοι because a ‘magician’ could just be a circus clown, charlatan, someone who casts spells, maybe read out of book, maybe because she found a magic wand? But a ‘wizard’ is someone who not only has magical powers, but also wisdom, knowledge of secret, long lost arts and powers. (Wizards dress more sharply, too, than magicians do 😉
So our μαγοι are really wizards, like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings? Yes! Exactly! Tolkien stole all his greatest ideas from the bible and Gandalf is a good wizard just like the μαγοι who came to Jerusalem at the first Christmastime to worship the real King. So, when you hear “magi” or wise men, just translate in your head “Wizard, like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, a Christian wizard, mind you!” and you’ve got a good picture of these guys.
So why don’t all translations just translate it “Wizard (like Gandalf)”? Well, it’s not because they don’t know the correct English word for μαγοι. The simple cross reference of terms with the other μαγοι in the scriptures is quite easily done—anyone with Step Bible on their phone and minimal knowledge of Greek can do it. It’s not difficult!
No, the difficulty isn’t linguistic (as it rarely is with all our weak, modern translations). The difficulty is twofold: 1) an excess of arrogance, and 2) a lack of faith.
The arrogance, first. In an age that worships “Science!”—as in Thomas Dolby’s “she blinded me with Science!”—as our god (well, next to Buncombe, the modern age’s real Lord) it is very galling, very humiliating to have to admit: there are far greater powers than vaccines, nuclear power, or AI—and these greater powers, the secret arts that conjure them, have been entirely lost to us which makes us not an age of “Enlightenment” as we like to think of ourselves, but a Dark Age, dwelling in ignorance and superstition.
And no one like to think of our world like that. It may have it’s problems, but, by golly—“it’s the best and most enlightened of all possible worlds! It’s our world, right or wrong!” and we’ll insist no past age surpasses it, especially in knowledge and power, might and wealth.
There’s a snarky saying “If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?” But I reply “if you’re so smart and rich how come you can’t call down fire from heaven, turn water into blood (or wine into God’s blood and bread into his body for the life of the world?). How come you can’t plague the world with magic, biting gnats that drive everyone out of their mind, scratching and itching themselves to death, which would paralyze any modern army and make yours invincible? What is nuclear power compared to Elijah’s fire from heaven? What are souped up viruses compared to magic, biting gnats as weapons?
C.S. Lewis mocked the hubris of modern “scientists” who think because we can lift heavy things and move them long distances, or make big fires with nuclear weapons we’re the bees knees. To heal any diseases, instantly, as the Lord and his apostles did, to make polluted water clean as Elisha and John the Baptist did, to read minds, still storms, to cast out demons, to raise the dead, to forgive sins and thus grant life eternal as our Lord does!—this is Real Power! An age that can’t even turn staffs into snakes, or conquer a Balrog, like wizards of old, is not an Enlightened but a Dark and Weak age, for sure…
One modern physicist, Murray Gel-Man, after winning the Noble Prize for physics in 1962 when asked if, like Newton, he’d seen further than others because he stood on the shoulders of giants replied: “No. If I have seen further than others, it’s because I am surrounded by midgets.” A correct assessment of the “modern age of… Science!
But even among the (few) modern humble, there is usually a decided lack of faith—our 2nd, and greatest difficulty in grasping the nature of the wizards who came from the east to worship the newborn Christ as King…
It wasn’t party tricks like turning sticks into snakes, or conjuring fire from heaven, or even army paralyzing magic gnats, that made these wizards truly wise and great, no, no! Their Epiphany was seeing Christ’s star is in the rising and following the Star of Christ, and yearning for nothing as much as being granted an audience with him, a glimpse, and to worship him as LORD and God.
They were wizards (real Gandalfs 😉 chiefly because they could recognize a magical star as that of the Christ whose star even Balaam [Numbers 24] saw in the rising, but not yet, not in Balaam’s day; who would leave house, home, court, lands, families, and hit the road like Neal and Jack, risk life and limb, just to lay their treasures before the real King of Kings and worship him.
For the ancient church (and the church of the East) still today, January 6 is the real Christmastime. Because this is the gift above all gifts—that makes supernaturally powerful, that makes a wizard out of the smallest child—the humble faith that bends the knee to the LORD Christ, begging forgiveness, mercy, on us poor sinners.
Wizards, the truly wise, still seek him, still undertake long journeys to find his resting place and worship him. You can be a wizard too, like them, here and now, when—by humble faith, born of Word and Sacrament—you lay your treasures down, and worship Jesus, the King of Kings.
An arrogant and faithless world will hate you for this—like wicked King Herod, will hound and harass you, no end! You’ll need, like those wizards, to depart for your own country another way. But, on this wizardly way, you will find… Peace, surpassing all understanding, guarding your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Happy Epiphany. Amen.