Epiphany

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Matthew 2:1-12

While watching the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” a few months ago — a biopic about Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of “Queen,” my absolutely favorite rock group in high school and still to this day — I found out that his family were Zoroastrians, a religion that I thought had disappeared a few hundred years ago. Come to find out it hasn’t, and, indeed, California has one of the largest concentrations of Zoroastrians outside of Iran and India.  

It also turns out that Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest active religions. It’s possible it began 4,000 years ago; it is, arguably, the world’s first monotheistic faith. It was the official religion of the Persian empire for more than 1000 years, from about 600 BCE to 650 CE.  Some scholars believe that some of the tenets of Zoroastrianism helped to shape Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For instance, the concept of one God, of heaven, hell and a day of judgement may have been introduced to Jewish communities living in Babylon when they were in captivity. The primary prophet for Zoroastrianism is, not surprisingly, Zoroaster. Adherents believe he was miraculously conceived in the womb of a 15-year-old Persian virgin. Sound familiar? Like Jesus, the prophet started his ministry at the age of 30 after he defeated Satan’s temptations. Zoroaster predicted that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.” Zoroastrian priests believed they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars. (Much of this background comes from this article.)

I think you know where I’m going with this… It turns out that our Magi, the three wise men from our story, are most likely Zoroastrian priests. They weren’t kings or wise men, per se. They were priests who interpreted dreams and had a deep understanding of astrology, which was like the science of that time.  These priests from the East represent an Empire that, for a long time, had been one of the main barriers against Roman imperialism. Matthew’s community likely saw the Persians as long-standing religious and political allies against Rome, their oppressors.  So, Biblical scholars believe it may have been important for Matthew to show the birth of Jesus as fulfilling both Jewish and Zoroastrian prophecies and to show the Gentile priests also recognizing Jesus’ kingship and divinity. 

The Magi’s skill at following the star gets them pretty far — it brings them to the capital of Jerusalem and King Herod’s palace, where one might well expect to find a baby king. There, instead, they find a paranoid, brutal and insecure ruler. The kind who sends midnight texts attacking his many enemies.  Herod has ample reason to feel insecure. He’s basically a puppet king put in place by the occupying Romans. And, Biblical prophecies state that the Messiah — the true leader of Israel — would be born in Bethlehem and come from the line of King David. King Herod doesn’t meet either of those criteria. Neither does he meet the Scriptural criteria for how a just King of Israel will behave. 

As we heard in Psalm 72, which is a coronation hymn for the King of Judah, the King is put on the throne to administer God’s justice and God’s righteousness, not his own. The psalm goes on to list its desires for this kingship, and these desires are not about better trade deals or great infrastructure or law and order. The desires are for the king to defend the cause of the poor of the people and give deliverance to the needy, to crush oppressors and oppression. The desire is for all of God’s creation to live in a harmony in which both the land and the people prosper. This king is to receive homage not because he has defeated other people and made them his subjects but because “he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.” Other people bow down before this king because of his just ways. This is the exact opposite of Herod and his cruel, unjust ways. (Insights about Psalm 72 come from here.)

So, when Herod learns that the Zoroastrian priests have seen a star predicting the birth of the King of the Jews, he becomes afraid. Very afraid. And he hatches a paranoid plan. Pretending to be on the same page as these priests from the East, he tells them where to find the new king, in Bethlehem, and then makes an innocent request: “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” We know exactly what Herod planned to do once he found this child, however, because later in this chapter— after the Zoroastrian priests are warned in a dream not to return to Herod —he kills all the children in an and around Bethlehem who are two years and younger. Anything to stop this baby king from coming to power.

During the season of Advent, we learned from people like Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah how to wait for the coming of the Light into our lives and into the world and not succumb to despair or discouragement or dissipation as we do so.  It strikes me that with these Zoroastrian priests, we might learn something about what comes after the waiting. Of how to begin to move forward on the journey toward the Light once we have observed its coming into the world.

So what can be learn from these priests from the East? First, they are moving forward together. This is not a lone wolf journey. This is not one person following their own inner vision or setting out on a heroic solitary quest. We have plenty of those kinds of individualistic stories in our culture, and they are not bad stories. Perhaps they are even necessary stories. But in times of darkness, when paranoid kings kill children, I think we need stories more like these three Zoroastrian priests, who travel together over all kinds of beautiful and arduous and sometimes dangerous terrain — field and fountain, moor and mountain; who encourage each other when they are tired; who remind each other of the importance and significance of this journey, why they are even doing it; who consult with each other on which turn to take when they come to a fork in the road; who can still see the star when another’s eye grows weary or dim, who together discern where the star is leading them and what their dreams mean.

Secondly, the Magi move forward together toward the Light, guided by something bigger and more mysterious than their own intellect or reason. They certainly relied on that — remember that astrology at that time was considered a science. They relied on a traditional body of knowledge, a process of scientific inquiry, so to speak. But they also lived within a worldview where — as our Scripture suggests —  there was congruence between heaven and earth, between the non-human and human worlds.  They lived within a world where the pathways of stars could reveal the Divine will; where the trees of the forest sing for joy in praise of the Creator. (Insight from here.)

Of course, many Native and Indigenous peoples around the world still live in this world, as do adherents of many religious and spiritual traditions that have retained this sense that we live in a revelatory universe, where the stars above and the spirit within witness to Divine guidance and care. I remember going on a walk with Beth in my neighborhood, and a crow flew across our path. I’m not sure I initially even noticed the crow, but Beth did, and she paused to reflect on the message it might be bringing, especially as it related to our conversation. I loved this and tried to open myself more to this kind of attentiveness to the non-human world. I was a bit surprised to find that it wasn’t that hard to do. One time, I was sitting outside in my backyard. I was sad and confused, weighed down by — as the hymn says — my “calendar of care.” (From “God Whose Farm is All Creation.”)

Instead of continuing to spiral into that sad state, I remembered the crow. I opened my eyes and saw a gladiola flower staring at me. It was the most beautiful peach color, and I hadn’t seen it until now. I don’t mean “not seen it” in some metaphysical, mystical way — like, wow, a flower, man — I mean, I literally hadn’t noticed it. There, in my garden, was a flower of enormous beauty and delicacy. The saying of Jesus went through my mind: “Consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin. But I tell you, Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as these” (Matthew 6:28-29). And, the gladiola spoke to me of Divine providence, Divine care, creation’s abundance. And my burden eased a bit.  The world is full of stars in the East. Can we together, as Beth did for me, invite each other to be attentive to these signs all around us?

In addition to relying on signs in nature, the priests from the East relied on dreams to guide them. In fact, in the second chapter of Matthew, not only the Magi are given revelatory dreams, Joseph is twice given direction by God through his dreams — first to take Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod and then to return home again. Dreams are seen as revealing divine wisdom many times in the Bible. And in many, many cultures, for many thousands of years, dreams have been seen as a key form of guidance. Then came the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, and some of us began seeing dreams as neurons firing, at random. The Western, European world didn’t start to see dreams as revelatory again until depth psychology came along during the last century and reawakened some of us to the wisdom of our dreams, to the ways they can reveal a path forward.

For years, this church had an ongoing dreams group. I know many people found the guidance of discerning dreams together in a group very helpful. I was in a different dreams group for years, during a crucial period of my adult life when I was discerning my vocation. It is possibly not a stretch to say I may not be here today if I hadn’t paid attention to my dreams. How else would I have known to return home by another road — not just the road less taken but one I didn’t even know was there until my dreams started pointing the way to it? 

Being attentive to dreams is just part of a larger discipline of being attentive to something other than our conscious intellect. Our unconscious has many ways of speaking to us, in addition to dreams, through breakthroughs or “eureka” moments, through synchronistic encounters, through hunches and intuitions. Sometimes, I find myself singing or humming a song (often a hymn) that I wasn’t consciously aware of, and when I listen to the words of the song I am singing, it sometimes contains a message I need to hear — words of comfort and, sometimes, even guidance. 

In our present time, when paranoid kings rule, and when the life of the planet is literally at stake, I think it is more important than ever that we come together to listen for the Spirit and to seek the Spirit’s guidance. I think we need more than our conscious intellect, our rational mind, to get ourselves out of this mess we are in. I think we need to hear the Spirit’s voice in many ways, new ways, perhaps ways we haven’t been as attentive to before, as we observe the glimmers of light that have appeared in the dark and move toward them, together. May we together give our lives to that light.