The Path of the Magi: Paying Homage to Jesus
Because the story of the Magi is such a rich and multilayered piece of Jesus’ infancy narrative, it deserves its own Sunday to explore after Christmas. Picture this: the Magi, not present at the nativity scene as often depicted, but embarking on a journey that spanned months, possibly years, to pay Jesus homage.
Who were the Magi?
Who, then, are these Magi, and how many were there? Commonly portrayed as kings, the Bible does not bestow upon them royal titles. Here lies the complication of our story: distinguishing the Biblical account from the layers of legend imposed over it. The Scripture remains silent on their exact number, assuming three stemming from the three gifts they bore. But there could have been any number of them. Five people could bring three gifts. Or two. We don’t know.
Maybe you’ve heard that they were ancient astronomers. Perhaps, but the word Magi is what priests of the Zoroastrian faith were called. This religion, rooted in ancient Persia, still embraces followers worldwide. Some of their teachings likely influenced Jesus’s teachings, such as the story of the sheep being separated from the goats. The magi’s early encounter at the cradle of Christianity speaks volumes of inclusivity, celebrating faiths converging in reverence.
That means one of the first lessons of Christmas is about inclusiveness and honoring people of other faiths. The Christian faith really has no room for all of the exclusiveness and condemnation of people of different religions that has led to disastrous consequences.
Pay attention to the signs.
Now, let us turn our gaze to the star of our story. Some astronomers have explained that celestial phenomena could have occurred around Jesus’ birth, such as planets aligning and amplifying the light or supernovae. I don’t know about all of that. Maybe. The star seems to have odd qualities because it moves and fixes itself over the place where Jesus was. How do you know what house a star is shining over, it’s trillions of miles away.
I’m unsure about all that or if the story takes some dramatic license. What I’ve always found interesting is that the star was up there for all to see, but the magi were the ones who paid attention to it and recognized its significance. None of the Israelites discerned the signs of their hopes being fulfilled, but the outsiders did. How blind we can be to what is right in front of us, and sometimes we need an outsider to give us a fresh perspective. That is one of the reasons why we benefit by exploring other faith traditions. We may discover things that are right in front of our eyes, but we haven’t noticed.
The story invites us to observe what is happening to see how God might be at work. Those who pay attention to these kinds of things discover the presence of God in their lives, which is a very help in times of trouble and a source of strength they might otherwise have missed.
Today, we don’t get stars, but we get other events and people in our lives that God uses to get our attention.
First stop: Herod’s palace.
Tradition, not the biblical story, gives us camels. They are good figures for a nativity set, but we don’t know if that was their mode of transportation.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi seek the newborn king in the most logical place—the royal palace. Here, they encounter Herod, a ruler infamous not just in Biblical texts but in historical records as a figure of cruelty and paranoia. He was a tyrant who feared losing power so much that he murdered his sons and many others in his own family to keep them from his power.
Imagine the shock in Herod’s court as these distinguished visitors entered, not to pay him homage but to inquire about a new king. The moment was more than a surprise. It was a direct challenge to Herod’s authority. It took one heartbeat for Herod to set his sights on eliminating the threat posed by this baby king. “Go find him and tell me where he is so I can pay him homage.” As we know from the rest of the story, his intent was homicide, not homage.
Focus on homage, not the gifts.
Eventually, the magi find Jesus and bring their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, a burial spice used to cover the stench of death. This is not a usual homage gift, but it foreshadows what happens to the baby king later in the story.
Just like when we miss the meaning of Christmas by focusing too much on gifts, we miss the importance of the magi story when we make it all about the gifts. The magi’s actions are the focus. What did they do? They paid homage to Jesus. What is that? The word homage is employed three times in the story.
Homage means to pay respect to someone with authority. Maybe the magi were just there as diplomats, trying to gain favor with a foreign power. They were wise enough to know that if this kid grew up to be the Messiah, it would be good to get on his good side from the start. They brought gifts and bowed low.
Here, I think the story invites us again. We are also invited to pay homage to Jesus, to show deference, respect, and honor for what he taught.
Bending the knee.
In movies and television series like Game of Thrones, they talk about bending the knee. It’s usually forced subjugation of someone against their will, under threat of death. But occasionally, it is a sign of deep gratitude and respect. It comes with a pledge to accept their leadership.
When someone offers a marriage proposal, the tradition is that they take a knee—a sign of respect and honor.
Sometimes, we talk about how tragic events bring us to our knees. When someone dies, tragedy or disappointment strikes us to the core. We find ourselves in moments of desperation. But it doesn’t have to be a moment of desperation that drives us to our knees. We can willingly go there like the magi, who left their homes to bend the knee to something higher.
What is worth bending the knee?
Fall on your knees, the song O Holy Night says.
Discovering something worth bending your knees for is a blessing and a relief. It relieves you from having to be the center of the universe. It means finding something worthy to follow to organize your life around. It means making commitments.
If not literally, we bend our knees spiritually. In Jesus, we are taught to bend the knee to truth, fairness, helpfulness, gratitude, and generosity. You don’t have to believe in God as a being in the sky to recognize that these are worth paying homage to.
So we pay homage to Jesus when we welcome the stranger, forgive those who have hurt us, pray for our enemies, help those in need, tell the truth, or stand up for the rights of another. These are the things Jesus modeled, and we pay homage to Jesus when we incorporate these things into our lives.
Our worship is a form of spiritually bending the knee. Catholics and Episcopalians do this literally in worship. We also have times of deep commitment, such as confirming youth and having them kneel. Every minister I’ve ever known has knelt to take on their ordination vows to give their lives to Jesus’s way in service to the church.
The Magi model civil disobedience.
After the magi pay homage and give their gifts, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they return home by another way. When they do so, they defy the king, creating the first act of civil disobedience in the New Testament. Sometimes, there are higher principles than what governments and tyrannical rulers demand. Occasionally, we must refuse to go along—even if a price is to be paid.
How often have we seen politicians quote the Bible to say, “God put me in power, and scripture tells us to obey authority, so do what I say?” That’s how Herod speaks, not Jesus. Just like it took courage for the magi to defy Herod, so does it take courage to be a Christian. We try to do what is right, not blindly follow a leader as if we were in a cult.
Getting home by another way.
There is a fascinating wordplay when Matthew tells us they went home another way. Jesus said he is the way, the truth, and the life. The earliest Christians called themselves “people of the way.”
We always have a choice. Will we follow the ways of Herod or Jesus? Herod’s are the ways of violence, vengeance, dominance, self-centeredness, pettiness, and jealousy. It’s a road to misery.
The ways of Jesus open you up to that place in the sun of peace, meaning, and integrity where you really want to go. These are the ways of love, compassion, unity, sharing, and forgiveness.
As you set your course for the new year, choose your way as wisely as the wisemen, the magi. If something in your life has not been going well, if it is not filling you with the fruit of the spirit, love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control, perhaps it’s time to consider going another way—the way to your true home. Amen.