This is the first day of the ninety day challenge reading the New Testament.
Which means that today’s reading is the first three chapters of the gospel of Matthew.
There are fireworks in my mind when I read these first three chapters. We find heritage, birth, ordaining, family movements, and the baptism of Jesus, in just a few words.
Two things, though, as we begin this journey together.
The first striking story, for me, is the introduction of the Magi. If Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, then he introduces foreigners very early into the story. These Magi, “from the east,” are strange guests. By reading the stars they have determined that heaven had kissed the earth in the form of a baby, and came to see.
The Magi were star-gazers, ancient astrologers, familiar with the order of the cosmos. They were formed during the reign of Persians in the Middle East, and, during the time of Cyrus the Great, about 700 years before the birth of Christ. Of varying tribes of people in Persia, their tribe produced the religious leaders of their day, and during the Persian Empire, they were extremely powerful, making themselves indispensable to every religious occurrence. Defined by ancient historians, the magi were “wise in the things of God and serves the divine,” and “considered to be philosophers … the best of the Persians and strove to lead a holy life.” (For more, you can read The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, by R.C. Zaehner.) They also were world travelers.
By the time we see them in Matthew, the glorious Persian Empire has fallen, overthrown by Alexander the Great 400 years earlier, but they are still a class, or an order, of people, considered wise with the ability to interpret the stars, and even perform signs.
When they find Jesus, in Matthew 2, Jesus is no longer an infant in a manger. Visiting Jesus in a home, they bring him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, perhaps because they considered him royalty. Or, as others have surmised, their gifts were meant to prepare the Christ child for a sacrificial death, as these three gifts were also used in funeral practices. Either way, they were, and are, expensive.
Let’s stop there, and go to ancient China for a moment. Ancient China, like most ancient civilizations, had a class of people in their society that functioned as the religious leaders in their particular religion. In ancient China, and particularly in one of the ancient ruling dynasties (what we now call the “Zhou Dynasty”) there was a class of “miracle-workers,” also called “shamans,” which functioned, actually, a lot like the Magi of the Persians.
New archaeological research has found Persian Magi in China, about 700 years before the birth of Jesus. Those Magi had travelled to ancient China, and found people with similar offices and abilities and influence. Ancient Chinese shaman borrowed the symbol and title of these Persians.
And that symbol was, and is, quite powerful.
The Magi wore it as a badge, as simple sign for anyone to know who they were, and their capabilities. Their sign transcended their own Persian heritage, and was given to the ancient Chinese, who adopted the same symbol for their own class of religious shaman.
And what was their sign?
It was a cross.
Long before they connected to the ancient Chinese … long before they were familiar with the Jewish people … long before they were familiar with the birth of Jesus … they were identified as people of the cross.
They were made to know the Savior of the world, before they even knew better.
Matthew prepares us for this event in the first few words of his gospel. And though the Magi, to us, are merely characters in the story, and characters in Christmas songs, they were well-known by the Jewish people. Matthew’s audience would have known their symbols, and their abilities, and their sign.
And these Magi came to Jesus bearing gifts, and bearing a cross.
May we do the same.
This is the first of a summer of blogging as I, and many others, read through the New Testament. Hope you join us! Click here for the explanation, and check back often!