We Three Kings?

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

We Three Kings of Orient Are.

The Journey of the Magi by James Tissot.

What I am planning to talk about today is the fact and fiction surrounding said kings. Why? Because today we are celebrating the start of the season of the Epiphany, the time during which these kings are said to have visited the infant Jesus.

Just a word, first, though, about Epiphany. What does this season signify? As will be evident if we have ever described ourselves or anyone else as having had ‘an epiphany' we will understand it, correctly, to mean ‘having a revelatory experience', an experience where our eyes were opened significantly to something. The Epiphany of the Church's year is precisely that - it is the time where we recall that in that stable, where Jesus lies, a revelatory experience take place for all those that are with him: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and, particularly, those three kings. They recognize in Jesus someone of high and particular significance. This is why they make a point of visiting Herod to seek explanation of this new king. Even Herod, who may have been many things but wasn't stupid, has an epiphany: he recognizes in the tiny child Jesus a King and Ruler.

During this brief explanation of the significance of the season of Epiphany, I may well have been slightly irritating some of you, some of you who like details to be correct. I have been referring to the three kings. And you might argue, rightly, that I have no justification in this. For nowhere does it say that they were kings, and nowhere does it say that there were three of them.

In fact, we know very little about these individuals, and what we purport to know of them is in fact a mixture of speculation, inference and romantic embellishment. I therefore think that it would be appropriate to take a slightly closer look at these individuals, their gifts and their overall significance in the great scheme of things.

Let's start with what we definitely (well, fairly definitely) do know: these people are mentioned only in St Matthew's gospel. He refers to them as ‘wise men from the east'. So, we know that they are, variously, men, wise, and from somewhere east of Bethlehem.

They are in fact referred to in the Greek as magoi. Matthew 2:1. This is the plural of magos. This is translated into the Latin word magus. Both are derived from the ancient Persian word maguš or, more fully, magupati.

 A depiction in gold of a Persian magus.

A depiction in gold of a Persian magus.

So far, so interesting. Let me tell you a bit more about the Persian magupati. The word seems to refer, actually, to a tribe or caste from the ancient civilization of Media which was subsumed into the Persian empire in the 6th century BC. For more information on him and the subsumption of Media into Persia, please see the rather splendid book of Daniel.

The magupati in ancient Media/Persia were a caste set aside for religious and funerary practices. One might say that they were akin to an ancient priestly caste. In the way that priestly castes or classes emerged in many ancient civilizations, from the developing religions of Egypt to Judaism.

As such religions evolved, so they became apparently more monotheistic. Zoroastrianism is one of the most, possibly the oldest, monotheistic religion in this history of religions and, as such, of considerable cultural significance. It originated in Persia, anywhere between 1500 and 500 BC, founded by Zoroaster, better known in the west as Zarathustra. This reminds me of work Rickard Strauss' ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra', based on a work by Nietzsche, the music famously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey'. But I go off at a tangent.

Journey of the Magi, a mosaic in the Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, c. 6th c.

We can be pretty certain, from the Greek designation of these visitors to the infant Jesus, that they were priests of the Zoroastrian religion, from what is now Iran, and of an appearance commensurate with men from that part of the world. In other words, just as Jesus was not white and blue-eyed, as most Christian art would have us believe, neither were these Magi (the word we use in English for magoi, and from where our word ‘magic' is derived).

The Adoration of the Magi by Hugo Van Der Goes.

Traditionally, you may recall, they have been portrayed as white, except for one who was black. A glance at any Old Master of the ‘Adoration of the Magi' will reveal very venerable, bearded gentlemen who look more like they came from Ohio than Iran. For some reason, history has given them names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. This is purely on the basis of a rather spurious text found in Alexandria in the 6th century AD. In fact, they are given different names in different parts of the world. None of these names are particularly Persian, except that some argue that Caspar is a corruption of ‘Gaspar' which itself is a corruption of ‘Jaspar' which is the Persian for ‘Keeper of the Treasure' and therefore a plausible connection.

Zoroastrian priests were renowned for their advanced astronomical observations and analyses. Actually, the likelihood is that they would have practiced what we would now refer to as astrology and divination. An interesting note to this is that the English translation of the Bible uses a very specific word, you will recall, in relation to their conversation with Herod. Herod asks them to ‘search diligently for the child'. The word ‘diligently' is a translation of a Greek word that has no direct English equivalent, but which refers to astrology and divination. So this Greek reference, as with the word magoi, tells us that we are dealing here with astrologers and augurors. These are occupations with which we nowadays are not especially comfortable - with good reason. And they were occupations with which the translators of the Bible into English may also not have been very comfortable, hence a possible explanation of why they translated magoi not as ‘magicians, but as ‘wise men'.

And what of these treasures (and this is doubtless where the tradition of the three wise men comes about)? There are three gifts - all explicitly mentioned in Matthew's gospel. It is therefore inferred that there were three gift-bearers. Logical, but hardly a water-tight argument. Having said that, it hardly matters whether there were three wise men or thirty. The significance is in the visit, the provenance of the visitors and the symbolism of the gifts.

First, we have gold. We tend to assume that gold signifies kingly rule, given that we are used to gold as an extremely precious metal, and as the material of choice for crowns, orbs and scepters. But I would want to suggest that it is equally plausible that it was given as a gift to confer health. Gold has long been used for its medicinal properties. Indeed many precious metals have. I have a friend in India who one time insisted that I tried some of her silver covered candy. I was a little dubious about eating silver, but I did. It tasted, well, metallic, but seemed to do me no harm, and may have done me some good. Gold has been a medicine of choice for millennia for healing many ailments.

 A Boswellia tree growing in the Wadi Dowkah, Dhofar, Oman.

A Boswellia tree growing in the Wadi Dowkah, Dhofar, Oman.

Then the frankincense. This is better known today as incense - we burn it at this service. It is made from the resin of the Boswellia tree, which grows mostly in Yemen and Oman. Also for millennia it has been traded as a precious commodity, renowned for its perfume, its aromatherapeutic qualities and its essential oils. It is traditionally used to relieve stress, to improve respiratory problems and for minimizing scars.

 The fruit of the Commiphora tree.

The fruit of the Commiphora tree.

And, finally, myrrh. Now, you can buy myrrh on eBay. If you don't believe me, it's the Green Health 100% pure essential oil, $2.99 plus shipping on eBay. Myrrh is the resin of the commiphora tree, resident in Somalia and Ethiopia. It has very similar qualities to incense, but whereas incense has a sweet fragrance, myrrh has a bitter one. It was traditionally therefore used both medicinally as an essential oil and burnt at funerals, to mask the smell of decay, where a bitter fragrance is required to counter the sickly sweet smell of decay.

In some ways, I am persuaded by the notion that these three gifts are all medicinal, conveying as they do a salve and cure for all of life's conditions.

Crucially, also, they were all extremely expensive gifts. Myrrh, in fact was up to five times more valuable than gold, weight for weight.

In many ways this has been an interesting diversion into history and popular science, but what does it tell us about the ministry and mission of Christ. First, it tells us very clearly it seems to me that Christ is being clearly signified in the gospel of Matthew as being accessible to all, irrespective of cultural background, social standing or ethnicity. It also tells us the gifts we can offer to God ourselves can be allegories of those first three gifts, the hallmarks of which were that they were both the best they could find, and yet also of immense usefulness and practicality: they were not abstract or useless.

Finally, it also tells us that these gifts to the Christ child were from some of the most vital, vibrant and learned civilizations the world has ever known, and that the Christian heritage and, indeed, heritage of other religions, in the Mid East, is something of which we, and the whole world should be immensely proud and grateful. The irony of the conflict in the Holy Land is that it only exists because it is a place of such importance and because the stakes are so high for so many people. But treasure, like the Holy Land, is so much better when it’s shared – as the wise men so rightly understood.



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