Eastern Wisdom Meeting the Christ
The Magi Visit the Messiah
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The story of the wise men from the East coming to seek the new born baby is one of the beautiful legends surrounding the birth of Jesus. It is with this story that we celebrate epiphany. It is a great story that perfectly fits into nativity scenes and into children’s performances of the Christmas story.
Yet behind this simply nice story there is a deeper story happening. It is the story of people from the East searching God. The question thus is:
a) who are these men?
b) why did they seek Jesus?
c) And what does this visit mean for us?
2. Who are the wise men?
It is commonly assumed that there were 3 wise men – but actually we do not know how many came. People commonly think of three wise men because three gifts are mentioned. Interestingly, orthodox Christians believe that there were 12 magi.
Maybe more interesting is who they are? The Bible introduces them as ‘magoi’ – ‘magi’ – meaning people who have special divine knowledge the special skill of religious divination and of astrology. They may have been religious advisers to the rulers in Persia. Many scholars suggest that they were Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism was the religion of the Persian empire. Its founder was Zarathustra or Zoroaster in the 6th century before Christ. It had many parallels to Christianity but was also an important competitor to Christianity. It similarly claimed their leader being born by a virgin. Like Jesus Zarathustra started his ministry at the age of 30. And it similarly expected an eschatological savior like the Jews’ expectation of a Messiah.
But why did the wise men from the East come to worship Jesus?
3. Why did they come to seek Jesus?
Maybe the first question to ask is why Matthew included this story. Matthew is the only gospel telling this story. When Matthew introduces this story he may have had several reasons to do so. And these reasons may partly give us an idea why the wise men from the East have come to seek Jesus.
a) Receptivity of people from outside of the Jewish establishment
A first reason is that Matthew wanted to show that it is not the Jewish establishment that first discovers the Christ but people at the margins of society, people from outside Judaism such as the magi. We could call it a social reason. Indeed, I believe it is an on-going reminder for us that people from outside the establishment may be those who are better able to discover Christ in new contexts. Or in other words: God first reveals himself not to the social establishment but to the people at the margins of society. People from outside the establishment are more receptive to the Christian faith because establishment people are not interested in religious change. They are usually more interested in extending their own privileges, maintaining their power, and guaranteeing a stable society.
Matthew thus introduces the people from outside, Gentiles, as those who first come to worship the Christ. The magi stand in opposition to Herod who is not only the official king of the Jews but also a devout Jew who tried to show off his devotion by establishing strong relations with Jewish religious leaders.
b) Christ as better Zoroaster
But there may be a second reason why Matthew introduces this story: the story may suggest that the wise men from the East were dissatisfied with the teaching of their traditional faith and were looking for truth beyond their own tradition. We could call it a spiritual reason. Or in other words: Zoroastrians are seeking the Christ because they discover in Him the better Zoroaster. They are moved to seek beyond their own religious tradition. Again, this is a common pattern in people seeking Christ: they seek in him a revelation that stands in continuity to their traditional teaching but changes it in crucial areas.
c) Christ as king
Finally, there may be a third reason why Matthew introduces this story: the baby in the manger stands in starkest contrast to the power of the king Herod. We could call it a political reason. They worship him and bring him gifts that are typically given to a king. By doing so, they elevate him into the status of a king. Meanwhile, the king is left in Jerusalem, in his palace, seeking for a way to kill any attempt that undermines his rule. Remember, at the time of Jesus, two major empires faced each other: the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. Israel laid at the fringes of the Roman Empire, not too far from the Persian Empire. The visit by assumedly high-ranking Persian religious figures coming to the Roman Empire and elevating Jesus to the rank of a king was a political challenge to both the Roman and the Persian Empire. The wise men from the East implicitly expressed that the true king is beyond the empire.
The story has tremendous actuality if we think of the attempts of present-day rulers to eradicate any threat to their rule. As we celebrate the coming of Christ, we declare him the only true king and power and thus challenge all worldly claims for kingship.
For Matthew, the worship of Christ begins with people from outside the social establishment, from outside the mainstream of society, from outsiders.
Ultimately, we do not know what drove the magi, but what we should remember is that it is their own religious tradition, their astrology and divination that moved them to seek Jesus. The motivation to seek Jesus was, we could say, intrinsic to their own tradition. It was not brought to them from the Christian tradition, but it came to them through their own religious sources.
4. Asians seeking Christ
Brothers and sisters, what moves me most in this story is still something else: 2000 years ago wise men, scholars from the East, left their home to seek Christ. This movement still goes on today. Nowadays many people in the East leave their tradition to seek truth in Christ. All of you know how in the past 40 years a tremendous growth of Christianity in China has happened. Historically speaking, this has been a unique and unprecedented growth movement. We could say that people in the East, people in China, increasingly seek the Christ. Among them are ordinary people, peasants, workers, elderly people. And among them there are also scholars
5. Scholars from the East seeking Christ today
A good number of scholars have turned to the Christian faith because they found a deep flaw in their own tradition. It is not that traditional faith is all bad; rather, it means that people discover inherent weaknesses. It may be the Confucian focus on hierarchical social relations and on obedience, which is what really allowed dictatorship to grow. Or it may be traditional religion of ancestor worship that too narrowly focuses on familial well-being and lacks a concept of love beyond the family.
Some of these scholars believe that the political model of democracy needs a different spiritual fundament – namely the Christian faith.
The question for these scholars as well as for the ordinary seekers from the East is: How do we find the Christ today? I believe that in this regard the beautiful Bible story still tells us an important lesson
6. How to find the Christ today?
The wise men from the East first go to Jerusalem, but soon learn from religious advisers in Jerusalem that the king is to be found in Bethlehem. I think there are two points we should note:
First, they do engage with local wisdom to find out more. They do not ignore local mainstream knowledge.
But then, and that is the second point, they are willing to move on from the capital of Jerusalem to the poor village around 9 km outside of Jerusalem. I think this is still an important lesson we should learn: Christ is not found in the capital, in the beautiful palaces, and in the centers of power, but at the margins – maybe in the slums, maybe in centers for refugees.
In other words: First, learn the knowledge of the center. But then, move beyond the center.
In fact, Jerusalem and Bethlehem are so near each other. Yet they are worlds apart. It was so in the past. And it is so today. Today, they even belong to different countries – Jerusalem is claimed by Israel and also by Palestine. But Jerusalem is more and more occupied by Israel. Bethlehem is within Palestine.
Nowadays, many Christians from HK make pilgrimages to the so-called holy land – which is so unholy and so full of war and conflict. The sad thing is that most of them go to Israel, but when going to Bethlehem they are led by guides from Israel and see Palestine only through the perspective of Israeli guides. This reinforces a common negative perception of Palestinians as only Muslim and as a place of terrorists.
As we are seeking Christ today, we should not go to the beautiful centers of power but we should find Christ among the poor. We need to learn to see reality through their eyes.
Yet, there is still another important lesson in this story:
7. Seeking Christ based on Eastern wisdom
The wise men from the East do not leave their own religious tradition. The story of the wise men from the East is not a conversion story where the wise men put down their own faith and adopt a new faith. No, it is a story that Zoroastrians seek Christ and worship him always while maintaining their own faith.
In the past term I had the opportunity to teach a course on the history of Christianity in Asia. It was the first time that I taught this course. Previously, we had courses on the history of Western Christianity and a course on the history of Christianity in China and a course on history of Christianity in HK, but never one on the history of Christianity in Asia. I wanted to fill this gap because there is a rich history of Christianity in Asia. It was an opportunity to address some basic issues of myself biographically, being born in the West and living in the East. And it was an opportunity to address issues of Christianity more generally, particularly regarding the common perception of Christianity as a Western religion. The course reminded me and my students that Christianity has always been an Asian religion and had simultaneously to the development in the West also a significant historical development in Asia.
However, one of the challenges that I encountered during the course was that much of Christianity in Asia had completely left their own tradition. They adopted a Western Christ instead of seeking Christ from within their own religious tradition.
Or in other words: they did not go to Bethlehem but they went to Athens, Rome, Wittenberg – or nowadays maybe Texas or Toronto. And, after going there, they did not return to their own context. The story of the wise men is an important reminder that we should seek the Christ in Bethlehem, which is part of Asia – not in Europe or North America.
I find that this great step of seeking Christ from within the Asian tradition has not yet happened.
Has traditional Christianity properly engaged with Asian wisdom?
And do present-day seekers of Christ really use their own religious tradition to worship Christ?
Are we not too often trying to substitute traditional religion?
One theologian who expressed it most beautifully is Kosuke Koyama (小山 晃佑 ) who was a missionary in Northern Thailand. He tried to find expression of Christ in a way that would not replace the wide-spread Buddhist faith. He maintained appreciation for the Thai people’s Buddhist belief and talked about the cool Buddha and the hot Jesus.
Brothers and sisters – we started with a beautiful and famous Christmas story. And we end up being challenged.
The story challenges traditional Christianity, reminding us that it is the Gentiles, people from outside the mainstream, from outside the establishment structures, who first recognize the Christ and worship him like a king!
It is a story that challenges Eastern wisdom, reminding us that the Christ is to be sought not in the centers of power but at the margins of the empire. How much are we ready to seek Christ not in the centers of power but among the marginalized? How much are we ready to go to Bethlehem and not to Jerusalem?
Finally, it is challenges us, Asian Christians: How much are we ready to go to Bethlehem instead of Rome and Wittenberg and Toronto? How much are we ready to find Christ from within our own tradition?