Corrie and I watched much of the PBS series Sacred Journeys that aired recently. Hosted by Bruce Feiler who has written several books chronicling his own spiritual journey and exploring relationships among the Abrahamic religions, the series followed American devotees and seekers as they made their way to famous pilgrimage sites of the world’s religions. Feiler accompanied American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as they sought physical and spiritual healing at Lourdes in Southern France. He went to Jerusalem, where he spoke with Christians, Muslims, and Jews. He also followed Buddhist pilgrims as they visited a series of temples in Japan and his cameras were taken by Muslims from the Boston area as they made the Hajj.
In each case, those who were making pilgrimage were a mixed group of people, some of whom were going home in a sense as well as some who were searching and exploring. Many of those he featured were either newly initiated or not fully committed to the religious traditions with which the pilgrimage sites were associated. Among the Muslims, for example, there were some who had made the hajj several times as well as some who had never been and were not particularly serious observers of Muslim practice.
What struck me as I listened to the interviews was not the expressions of commitment to the religious traditions in question, nor the accounts of transformation wrought by the pilgrimage, but rather the shared world view of most of the pilgrims. There was something typically American about them even as their stories were widely divergent. All of them were on spiritual journeys; all of them were seeking meaning and authenticity; and all of them hoped that in the encounter with devout believers from around the world, they would feel at home and welcome, even as they struggled to practice their particular faith and travel their particular spiritual journeys in the context of pluralistic and multi-faith America.
The vast diversity of the world’s religions can be confusing. The ways in which Americans can pick and choose among these traditions in their efforts to create meaningful lives can be off-putting to those of us who have committed ourselves to a single tradition. Still, there’s something wonderful about watching and listening to people as they engage with new ways of being sacred, encounter new people, and experience the profoundly sacred places of the world. I hope many of you took the opportunity to watch some of the series and if you haven’t, that you watch it in reruns or on the internet.
With images of Hindus bathing in the Ganges, and initiates into the Osun cult of Nigerian Yoruba religion fresh in my mind, the story of the magi took on a very different flavor for me this year. For in so many ways, the magi were like the pilgrims in Feiler’s series. They were on a spiritual journey, not quite sure what they were looking for, and not quite sure where they were going, not quite sure what would happen to them.
I doubt whether many of us who have been around the church for many years can hear the story of the magi being read without beginning to hum “We Three Kings of Orient Are” or see images in our mind of Christmas pageants over the years with little boys, perhaps ourselves, playing the part of the kings. We can’t hear the story as it was meant to be heard and we certainly don’t hear it with the sensitivity to the religious and political subtleties that are in play here.
For one thing, we probably don’t take note of the fact that the magi who come from the east are following a star. If pressed, we might say that it is rather odd, but unless we’re biblical scholars, or scholars of Judaism of the period, we don’t have a clue how strange that would seem to Matthew’s late first-century audience. There is throughout the Hebrew Bible, beginning in its earliest strands and in its first chapters a profound and relentless attack on astrology, on the widespread ancient idea that one could discern something about the future and about oneself by paying attention to the movements of the heavens.
There’s more than a little mystery around the magi, or wise men. Who precisely were they? The noun I’ve been using of them, “magi” derives from the Greek but we shouldn’t regard them as “magicians.” Older New Testament translations used “wise men.” Artistically, they are usually depicted in exotic dress, in vaguely eastern or oriental garb, and the long-standing tradition that one was African reinforces their exoticism. It’s likely that Matthew intended us to think of them as astrologers, people who paid close attention to the movements in the skies and linked those movements with the fates of nations and people.
Wise they may have been but they were also somewhat bumbling. They followed the star from the East, presumably Persia, but quit following it and turned toward Jerusalem. Although they claimed to be looking for a king, and hoping that the star would lead them there, at the end, they turned aside to go searching for the king where kings usually could be found, in cities with palaces and temples. And so they met Herod who sent them on their way and asked for a report from them.
In their encounter with Herod, another perspective opens up on the story’s significance. Herod is ostensibly “the King of the Jews”, a client of the Roman emperor, power hungry and manipulative. By bringing him into the story, the magi unwittingly set in motion the chain of events that will culminate in Herod’s massacre of the young children of Bethlehem in his attempt to do away with a potential rival to his power. And so the specter of brute military, imperial force looms over the story, over the magi, and over the child Jesus. Matthew subtly introduces the world-political significance of Jesus’ birth. For a time, Jesus and his family will be refugees, like so many millions over the years and today who flee oppressive regimes and the violence of war.
The story leaves us with many questions. In the course of the gospel, Matthew will make clear to the reader just who this “king of the Jews” is and it’s worth remembering that that very title was affixed on the cross at Jesus’ crucifixion, but all of that’s for another time. The magi leave the scene and the gospel, traveling by a different road. And that raises a whole series of questions for me.
At the gospel’s end, Jesus commands his followers to “make disciples of all the nations.” The magi have come from afar, from the east and are undoubtedly Gentiles. Are they meant to represent or foreshadow the spread of the good news into all the world?
Perhaps even more interesting is that they came to Jesus Christ by following a star. In spite of the biblical polemic against astrology, the magi encountered Christ by studying the movement of the planets and stars. To put it in our terms, they came to Jesus Christ by means of another religion.
On the other hand, as they return home by a different road and we lose sight of them, we also lack any information about what might have happened to them either in their encounter with Jesus Christ or in the rest of their lives. We don’t know if they were changed. We don’t know if they abandoned astrology. We don’t know.
And in that way, they might not be all that different from the pilgrims whose stories Bruce Feiler followed in the PBS series. For that matter, they might not be all that different from us. We come to this place, to this altar, in search of healing and wholeness, in search of spiritual experience, in search of Christ. Sometimes we may not be able even to name what it is we are seeking. Sometimes, we may be following a star or another sort of sign. Sometimes we may find what we are looking for; occasionally, even often, we may be disappointed. And it may be that sometimes we will discover that Christ has been accompanying us all along the way, sustaining us when we are weary.
As we turn away from this place and from this season, into the new year and back into the routine of our lives, may we remember our encounters with Christ at Christmas, this season of joy and hope and may those encounters sustain us as we make our way down a different road.