Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What We Can Learn From the Story of the Magi

Seven years ago I was invited to give the homily for the Feast of the Epiphany (January 2) at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Minneapolis. Following is the Gospel reading of that day, along with what I had to say about the story of the wandering magi’s search for Christ . . . and about cosmic or Christ consciousness.

Gospel Reading
Matthew 2: 1-12

After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of King Herod, astrologers from the east arrived in Jerusalem inquiring, “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay homage.”

At this news King Herod became frightened, and with him all Jerusalem. Summoning all of the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they replied. “Here is what the prophet has written: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, since from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, telling them: “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, report it to me so that I may go and offer him homage too.”

After their audience with the king, the astrologers set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house, they found the child with Mary his mother. They knelt down and did him homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route.

The Good News of our Salvation as spoken through Matthew.

by Michael J. Bayly

In today’s gospel reading we hear the fascinating story of the mysterious travelers from the East who journey far from their homes – far from safe and known boundaries – in their search for Christ.

Over the centuries, imagination and tradition have molded these travelers into “three wise men,” three kings, three astrologers. Yet it is not clear from the original account if the travelers even numbered three, or if all or some were male. Nowadays, Biblical scholars increasingly prefer the term “magi” to describe these mysterious travellers – a term that originally referred to a caste of Persian priests with special claims to interpreting dreams.

The story of the searching magi is found only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s original audience were Jewish Christians and he goes to great lengths throughout his gospel to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecies – even to the extent of devising the elaborate and, according to most scholars, impractical and impossible scenario of a census – so as to place Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem, the place where Jewish tradition holds the Messiah to be born.

In my experience of teaching theology I’ve discovered that there are often two initial responses that people display when confronted with such historical inconsistencies within the Bible. On the one hand, people dismiss totally what’s being presented as “a made-up story,” as something devoid of any purpose or meaning. On the other hand, people accept blindly the Biblical account, declaring all the while, who are we to question? Both reactions are extreme and ultimately unhelpful.

Thankfully, our faith as Christians is not grounded in the historical accuracy of the biblical texts. If it were then we’d be making an idol of such texts by failing to view them as ultimately symbolic, and thus failing to go beyond them to where they point us.

And the story of the wandering magi does indeed point us in the direction of some very powerful and universal spiritual truths. None of which would be obtained if we stayed on the surface of the story; if our faith was determined by mere literal interpretation; if our faith was blind to the role and power of symbol and metaphor.

Deeper meaning is gained by a faith built upon our lived experience of the Risen Christ in the here and now – an experience mediated through our experiences of Self and others, and gained as we strive to increasingly open ourselves to that same Spirit of transformation that infused and flowed from the historical Jesus.

I'd like to take some time in exploring this Spirit, this Christos, that our brother Jesus embodied and calls each of us to embody. Without doubt, it’s a mysterious reality, one often symbolized by light in many of the world’s religious traditions. It’s also a reality that is a part of each one of us, just as surely as it was a part of Jesus. And it is this embodiment, this incarnation, which is at the heart of the feast of Epiphany, the feast of manifestation, of the showing forth of the glory of God.

I believe that this Spirit, this core of divinity within each of us, is best understood primarily in terms of consciousness and wholeness, as opposed to objective infallibility and perfection. With such an understanding in mind, we can say that Jesus was divine because of his depth of consciousness with regards to who he knew himself to be – a knowledge that stemmed from his deep awareness of the connection between love of God and love of neighbor.

John Sanford in his book The Kingdom Within, notes that throughout his life and ministry, Jesus called others to likewise cultivate this depth of consciousness – to recognize and claim, in other words, the sacred within themselves; to open themselves to the sacred’s transforming love and to channel this love to others. Biblical support for such a view can be found in John 14:12, where Jesus states: “I am in God, and God is in me . . . In truth I tell you, whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, and will perform even greater works.”

Yet how, as followers of Jesus, are we to demonstrate our belief? I would say by following Jesus’ example of openness and responsiveness to God through prayer, reflection and concern for and action on the behalf of others.

Another author, John White, has also reflected upon the divinity of Jesus and in doing, so challenges the Christian Church in its understanding of this fundamental reality. White contends that Jesus was a historical person, a human becoming; but Christ, the Christos, is an eternal transpersonal condition of being to which we must all someday come.

Jesus, says White, “did not say that this higher state of consciousness realized in him was his alone for all time. Nor did he call us to worship him. Rather, he called us to follow him. He called us to share in the new condition, to enter a new world, to incarnate the same Spirit he incarnated, to be one in the supramental Christ consciousness that alone can dispel the darkness of our minds and renew our lives.

White reminds us that Jesus “taught and demonstrated cosmic consciousness, the Christic state of mind, the peace that surpasses understanding, the direct experience of divinity dwelling in us and all things, now and forever; creating us, living us, preserving us, urging us to ever more inclusive states of being.”*

The story of the searching magi serves as a fitting and powerful metaphor for our journey to Christic consciousness. I picture the magi as a caravan – one comprised of people of all races, genders, colors and orientations, bearing their gifts of self; encouraged and empowered by a deep longing for consciousness and wholeness. It is this desire which ultimately protects us from the unconscious, life-numbing states of being that fear and resist growth and change; states of being that are ultimately egocentric, corrupt and greedy. In today’s gospel reading, King Herod serves to illustrate such a state of being and its destructive and life-denying characteristics.

But let’s not forget that just as there is a part of us that yearns to journey, like the magi, to find and claim Christ, there’s also another part of us which, like Herod, wants things forever comfortable, forever under control, forever stagnant. Yet we can and must overcome such desires – within ourselves and within our church – if we are to follow in the example of our brother Jesus and be daily, living epiphanies.

What can encourage us in such an endeavor? Well, the quality of the community we keep is of vital significance. And intrinsic to this community are the stories and gifts we share and celebrate as we journey. It’s important also to recognize and remind each other that as we strive to live more consciously we really do experience, in the words of John White, “a growing wholeness, and increasing sense of the meaning of our individual personality, a realization of new and creative energies, and an expanding consciousness.”

Like the searching magi of old, we discover that this “conscious living” and ongoing expansion of awareness entails an openness to mystery and to the complexities and paradoxes of human life; a willingness to search and question, and a leaning toward trust rather than fear.

Such openness and the new levels of awareness to which it leads, compel us beyond our individual ego-existence to an alternative existence wherein our well-being is sought in harmony with others; an alternative existence accordingly graced by an ever-deepening experience of union with God.

Such union is a lifelong process of conversion and rebirth, often understood by the great spiritual traditions as a journey. Participation in this type of journey increasingly enables us to live a loving and creative life in the social sphere – a life which, like Jesus’, is capable of encouraging and challenging others entrenched in egocentricity, to live their lives more consciously.

And finally, it is important to note that the journey of the magi doesn’t end at the feet of the infant Jesus, but back in the Magi’s homelands where, gifted with new, deeper insight and with gifts of discernment and creativity, they are called like us, to manifest Christ; to manifest, in other words, the consciousness and love that is gained as a result of our journeying with one another and with the God who walks in our midst.

Michael J. Bayly
January 2, 2000

* White, J., “Jesus, Evolution and the Future of Humanity” in Grof, S. (Ed.), Human Survival and Consciousness Evolution (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 125.

The image accompanying this post is from the film
The Nativity Story.

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
A Christmas Reflection by James Carroll

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