IT IS only in St Matthew’s Gospel that we have the story of the Magi. Since the Sunday Gospels are based on Matthew this year, it is worth considering what Matthew is getting at. The visit of the Magi is a haunting story, and survives the various ways in which it has been deconstructed by scholarship (not three kings, but Persian astrologers; not necessarily historical, but woven into a tapestry of Old Testament texts; the “visit” was not at the same time as the shepherds, but some time later, etc.). Still, the Magi persist in the Christmas crib, their procession marking the arrival at the manger of the wise and the learned from afar.
Throughout his Gospel, Matthew prods away at the question whether Jesus has come only to the Jews. The question is resolved at the end in the Great Commission (28.16 ff), where Jesus charges the Twelve to spread his teaching beyond Judaism, to all nations.
The Great Commission and the story of the Magi are bookends to Matthew’s Gospel, and express, in different ways, Christ’s universal significance. The wise men were Gentiles; they were led by a star; they offered gifts representing their culture and faith. Their discovery of the Christ began with astrology, long before they arrived at their destination. That is not to commend astrology for itself: some early Christian commentators saw the coming of Christ as the destruction of pagan magic, and the Magi’s gifts as tributes of a defeated enemy.
But others took the more generous view that the seeds of the gospel were already planted even in pagan culture. Justin Martyr spoke of those who were “Christians before Christ”; Clement of Alexandria spoke of Greek philosophy as a preparation for the gospel, like Jewish law; Augustine was drawn to Christianity through Neo-Platonism.
The Church does the human race a disservice when it reduces the gospel to an experience or a formula or a political theory. Manifesting Christ to the world is done in dialogue with the world, a dialogue that should be both appreciative and critical. Christians thinkers who engage with philosophy, science, literature, the arts, and non-Christian faith traditions are rarer these days than they once were, and their task is harder in a culture that mocks, as Pilate did, the whole idea of “truth”. It is all too easy to reduce the Christian faith to one of many “truths” to be picked if they suit us.
The Church needs to recover the art and habit of Christian apologetics. It is not enough for Christians to seek approval or permission from wider society. We are to defend and commend the faith, not least by showing how congruent it is with our deepest human desires and aspirations. The long journey of the Magi points the way.
The Journey of the Magi on Radio 3 is reviewed here