In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “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.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:1–12, NRSV)
A gift of the scriptures is it provide lenses through which we see and interpret our lives and circumstances. The familiar, valued story of the magi traveling from their home country (perhaps Babylon) is a many-layered account that opens our eyes to the opportunities and challenges of our own time.
The magi were likely a learned class of astrologers, searching the night skies for key symbols of the meaning of life. Spotting the unusual star, they followed it to Bethlehem, with the help of Herod and religious leaders in Jerusalem. The magi startled the leaders and the people in the process.
I view the homage (or honor) the magi shared with the newborn king in Bethlehem as an early interfaith encounter. These eastern astrologers searched for the one the star signified, shared their honor and their gifts, and then returned to their country and their stargazing ways.
A recent, moving Michigan Avenue Forum at Fourth Presbyterian Church immediately came to mind. Eboo Patel, a Muslim interfaith leader, along with Cardinal Blase Cupich and Rabbi Wendy Geffen demonstrated how we are to approach our differing faith traditions: with openness, curiosity, and deep respect. The stories they shared echoed in my mind as I read of the magi once again. Yet for some of our neighbors, a different tradition is not inviting and insightful but threatening and dangerous—just as the magi’s visit to Herod stirred up anxiety and fear in Jerusalem.
May we follow the model of the magi in our own interfaith encounters.
This reflection was written by Jeffrey Doane, parish associate for older adults at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER:Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve. — Napoleon Hill