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. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
– Matthew 2:11-12
I love getting emails from Queer Theology. They always make me think, and sometimes they become inspiration for my Sunday posts. This week’s devotional is so perfectly worded, that I did not need to adapt it to my experiences. Often, their emails are geared more towards transgender individuals but can be adapted for all of us. Like I stated before, this one needed no adaptation, but there were a few things I wanted to add to it, so you will see that in italics. The rest was written by Brian G. Murphy, the Co-Founder of Queer Theology. As a historian, I find the story of the wise men to be particularly fascinating, mostly because of the inaccuracies most often portrayed in imagery of the wise men. At the end, you will see my own commentary about the wise men.
The nativity story has a message that LGBTQ+ Christians (and our allies) need to hear.
The scene of the “wise men” coming to visit the baby Jesus is imprinted on our collective consciousness—whether from church pageants or Christmas movies or front yard nativity scenes. In most tellings of this tale, the wise men are supporting characters. They are there to reinforce the magnificence of Jesus. They arrive and then they disappear, never to be heard from again. The story of Matthew’s Gospel follows Jesus, not these travelers.
But let’s stick with them for a moment.
These Magi (whom patriarchy reinterprets as men) see a new star in the sky and are moved to find out what it means.
They set out to find the one whose birth the star announces. And they find Jesus.
The author of Matthew’s Gospel is laying out his case that right from the beginning, there was something special about Jesus. Even Magi in a foreign land recognized him as King of the Jews. Jesus, not Caesar, is king, the gospel writer is emphasizing here; a treasonous claim.
The wise travelers could have encountered the baby Jesus and gone back home, from whence they came. That’s what many of us do. For instance, we are stirred to attend a Black Lives Matter march or Pride protest by current events, and then a few months later, our lives slide back to normal.
That’s not what happens here, though. The Magi have an encounter with Jesus that so transforms them that they cannot possibly go home the way they came. They are changed. They “returned by another route.”
Has that happened to you? You encountered something so meaningful that you could not help but be changed by it? Your life could not help but be eternally altered?
Perhaps it was the first time you met a transgender person and you realized “Hot damn! That could be me?!”
Or maybe it was an injustice that cemented your calling as an activist or ally.
Perhaps it was your first queer kiss, when you realized there was no denying it any longer.
We are all shaped by our life experiences. With a little bit of distance, we can sometimes see just how big a difference the smallest moment made. In the hustle and bustle of life, it’s easy to miss them, to let them pass by without a second thought.
What if you took some time to see—truly see—the moments that shaped you? To think about that time on the dance floor or the church retreat or the picket line or summer camp or whatever it might be for you. And to name it holy. To remember that there you encountered the divine and were forever changed. (Want some help seeing how the Gospel is queer? Check this out)
These moments aren’t limited to your past. There are “manger moments” waiting ahead of you, if only you’ll pay attention. If only you’ll see the star in the sky and follow your curiosity and see where it leads and be open to being transformed by what you find there.
Onward you go, in a new direction.
If you enjoyed this reflection, there are 39 more where it came from in Queers The Word: a 40 day devotional for LGBTQ+ Christians. You can learn more, read some reviews, and pick up a copy here.
Waiting with you,
Brian G. Murphy
Co-Founder, Spiritual Practices Coach
Traditional nativity scenes depict three “Wise Men” visiting the infant Jesus on the night of his birth in a manger accompanied by the shepherds and angels, but this should be understood as an artistic convention allowing the two separate scenes of the Adoration of the Shepherds on the birth night and the later Adoration of the Magi to be combined for convenience. The single biblical account in Matthew 2 simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which “wise men” visits Him in a house, not a stable. The text also does not specify the length of time between the birth of Christ and the Magi’s visit. Artistic depictions and the closeness of the traditional dates of December 25 and January 6 (Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day) encourage the widespread assumption that the visit took place the same winter as the birth, but later traditions varied, with the visit taken as occurring up to two winters later. This maximum interval explained Herod’s command in Matthew 2:16–18 that the Massacre of the Innocents included boys up to two years old. It’s always been my belief that the Magi visited Jesus sometime before he turned two years old.
Many of the stories we so popularly see about the Magi depicted in paintings and nativities are most likely inaccurate. Even the name “magi” was conceived later. The “wise men” may have been magi, and if they were, they were priests from another monotheistic religion. The term “magi” refers to the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. These priests paid particular attention to the stars as part of their religion. They gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science, and the reason why they would have seen the Star of Bethlehem as a sign of a significant birth, that birth being the King of Kings, the Jewish Messiah.
Although the Magi are commonly referred to as “kings,” nothing in the account from the Gospel of Matthew implies that they were rulers of any kind. The identification of the Magi as kings is linked to Old Testament prophecies that describe the Messiah being worshipped by kings in Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 68:29, and Psalm 72:10, which reads, “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him.” Early readers reinterpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and elevated the Magi to kings.
The New Testament does not give the names of the Magi nor how many Magi visited Jesus. There is no evidence that there were three wise men. This belief has always been conjectured from the three gifts given to Christ. There had to be at least two because the gospel uses the plural, but the exact number is never specified. However, traditions and legends identify a variety of different names for them. In the Western Christian church, they have all been regarded as saints and are commonly known as Melchior, a Persian scholar; Caspar; and Balthazar, a Babylonian scholar. According to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.
I could also go into detail about the reasoning behind the three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh; however, I’ve gone on about the Magi for too long already. It does, however, show that what we commonly believe about the birth of Christ has little to do with what is in the Bible. Many Churches of Christ, including the one I grew up in, do not celebrate Christmas (though we did outside of church, just not as part of an official church gathering). The date of Jesus’ birth is not given, and it could just as easily been in the summer as in the winter. The celebration of Christmas started in Rome about 336 CE, but it did not become a major Christian festival until the 9th century. The origins of Christmas stem from both the pagan and Roman cultures. The Romans actually celebrated two holidays in the month of December. The first was Saturnalia, which was a two-week festival honoring their god of agriculture Saturn. On December 25th, they celebrated the birth of Mithra, their sun god. The early Church used the dates of local traditions, holidays, and festivals to set dates for religious holidays as a way to appeal to a wider group of people.