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By The Venerable Dr. Christopher Brown

In the Book of Daniel, a young exile from Judah named Daniel is trained to serve in the Babylonian court, where his wisdom exceeds that of “all the magicians and enchanters that were in all [the] kingdom” (Daniel 1:20). These “magicians and enchanters” are called “magi” in the Greek version of the Old Testament.

Jewish scribes translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in the 2nd century, B.C. Called “the Septuagint,” this Greek translation was the Bible of the first gentile Christians. Paul quotes from the Septuagint. Luke copies its narrative style in his nativity account. And when Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus, he speaks of the visitors from the East, who came following a star, as the “Magi.”

Each year we invariably sing the familiar carol, “We Three Kings.” Matthew, however, never specifies that are three visitors. Nor does he describe them as “kings.” The Magi were priestly magicians and astrologers typical of the ancient Middle East. The Greek historian, Herodotus, speaks of the Magi as a priestly caste of the Medes. In Persia there was also an ancestral caste of magi or ‘magâunô,’ who were known for their study of astrology. There are also historical references to magi in Egypt, Ethiopia, Bactria, Parthia and, as we have seen, Babylon.

Matthew says that the Magi were following a star, and that they arrived in Jerusalem looking for “he who has been born King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). This indicates both that they observed the night skies and interpreted their meaning in the manner of the priestly astrologers of the East.

We celebrate their arrival in Bethlehem on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany is classically understood as the “Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” Epiphany anticipates the fulfillment of Jesus’ Great Commission, to “go and make disciples of all nations,” and fulfills the prophetic word of Isaiah 49:6,

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
     to raise up the tribes of Jacob
     and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Universal Savior or One of Many?
The unique role of Jesus as universal savior of “the nations” raises a question in the minds of many people: what about the Hindus? And the Buddhists? And the Muslims? And any number of virtuous non-believers, as well?

Many today see much that is compelling in other religions, and not the least, in the actual lives of those who follow them. Even in the little college town in northern New York where I live, turbaned Sikhs ride their bicycles past my church, a small mosque at the edge of town gathers worshippers every Friday evening, and Hindu women with red dots in their foreheads bring their children to play on the swings next to the church.

An engineering professor from Pakistan represents the Muslim community at the local ministerial association. He is not engaged in a Jihad against the West. Whenever he mentions the name, “Jesus,” he bows his head and says “blessed be He,” since devout Muslims universally honor Jesus as a prophet. Five times a day, with the utmost seriousness he chants the Qur’an in Arabic on his knees, and bows down in prayer toward Mecca. Few in my parish display such devotion; the only Christians I know who pray so often and with such regularity are the sisters at St. Mary’s Convent in Greenwich, NY.

Hindus often visit my church. They too are drawn to Jesus, even if they see him just as one of many manifestations of God. Sometimes they attend worship. More often they come during the week and stand in awe before the altar in the stillness of that sacred space.

Only the most rigidly dogmatic mentality would deny the reverence and sincerity of these non-Christian believers. One cannot help but recognize a genuine desire for God, and discern signs of God’s grace at work in these people’s lives.

It is not just out of political correctness that many people are uneasy about exclusive claims for Christianity. The notion that God would withhold his favor from so many people – especially those who show such evident sincerity – grates against their sense of decency and fairness. To many, it makes the God of the Bible seem callous and arbitrary.

As a corrective, many people today opt for a variety of approaches toward non-Christian religions:

Universalism – that God saves everyone, not just Christians,
Pluralism – that each religion is a different expression of Divine revelation,
Relativism – that all religions are real and true to those who practice them.

These approaches are not identical. The Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner was a pluralist, in that he believed that God was at work in many religions. Yet he was not relativist because he believed that Christianity is the final and definitive revelation, and that other religions are actually forms of “anonymous Christianity.” By contrast, the English theologian, John Hick, teaches that one divine truth transcends all particular religions, but that each religion is only a partial expression of that one truth.

Alternatively, many adopt a sort of “reverent agnosticism” in regard to non-Christian religions. They are not sure how to assess the truth value of other religions but are unwilling to dismiss their validity because of a commitment to tolerance. A similar approach is the view that “truth claims” are less important than the manner in which we live our lives. As the pastor and theologian, Brian McLaren, has said,

“When it comes to other religions, the challenge was to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong. But I think we have
a different challenge in post-modernity. The question isn’t so much whether we’re right, but whether we’re good. And it
strikes me that goodness, not just rightness, is what Jesus said the real issue was.”

What Does Scripture Say?
Many Christians remain unconvinced by this line of thinking. This is not for any lack of good will or respect toward non-Christians. The problem, rather, is that the approaches just mentioned tend to limit and qualify – if not flatly contradict – what the Bible says about who Jesus is, and what he has accomplished on our behalf.

If, as Isaiah says, the Messiah is to be “a light to the nations,” this means that his message is intended for everyone, no matter what their cultural or religious background may be.

If Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and the eternal Word “made flesh,” that was “in the beginning with God and was God” (John 1:1, 14), then he stands in a unique and supreme place in the human history.

If Jesus sent his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and bear witness to him “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), then, despite the evident spiritual integrity of other religions, and of the people who practice them, Christ is the One in whom their ultimate fulfillment lies. To adapt a phrase from Blaise Pascal, there is a “God-shaped hole” in every created human being, and only Jesus – the incarnate Son, crucified and risen on our behalf – can fill it.

It is not difficult to show that the “truth claims” of different religions are incommensurable. They cannot be harmonized or correlated into a single all-embracing religious vision. Brian McLaren may be correct that the way people live – what he calls “goodness” – is a more critical issue for people in the post-modern era. But one cannot entirely evade the issue of the content of what we proclaim as true. This is all the more pertinent when it comes to the Christian Gospel, since the focus of the “Good News” is what God has done in Christ, rather than human acts of obedience and service which are the fruit of God’s redemptive action.

Perhaps the most useful Christian approach to other religions is the recognition that we are not just dealing with doctrines, codes of behavior, and forms of worship. In the first instance we are dealing with human beings – people who have been made in the image of God. When the Word became flesh, it was their flesh he assumed; when he presented himself as an offering for sins, it was their sins he carried. To the extent that non-Christian religions have nothing to say about this, they miss the most important thing of all. To the extent that those who practice other religions are seeking after the God who made them, and who sent His Son into the world to share in their humanity, we cannot exclude the possibility that God’s grace is at work in their lives – even, perhaps, in their religion.

The Witness of the Magi
The story of the Magi offers an intriguing illustration of God’s grace at work among “the nations.” It is not the Jewish King Herod, nor the pious court scribes in Jerusalem, who acknowledge Jesus for who he is. It is the Magi alone – outsiders to God’s Covenant People – who offer gifts and prostrate themselves before the newborn king. They model the most basic expression of Christian devotion, a simple and heartfelt adoration of Jesus as Lord.

The Magi embody a basic human longing for God – they are the seekers on a pilgrimage (in the most literal sense). What has prompted their quest is their inquiry and reflection within their own tradition.

One intriguing theory is that the star which they were following was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which has been known for centuries to have occurred in 7 B.C. We also know this to have been around the time that Jesus was born, since King Herod died in 6 B C. The conjunction of the planets would have created a single orb of light, which can be tracked by computer recreations of the ancient sky.

Roland Deines, professor of New Testament at the University of Nottingham, has suggested that Jupiter, as the largest planet, would have been seen as representing kingship, while Saturn was associated with the God, Kronos, and would have been identified with “time.” (Note: Kronos is not identical with “Chronos,” the personification of time, but that need not preclude an association between the two, if only based on the similar sound of the Greek words.) Their conjunction has been shown to have occurred in the zodiacal constellation of Pisces, associated with Syria-Palestine and the land of Israel. Professor Deines concludes,

“…and so that means a king, a time or change of time, and the land of Israel, and this makes it
understandable that wise men or astronomers coming from the East ask in Jerusalem, ‘who or where
is the new born king of Israel.’”

This intriguing explanation need not be a validation of astrology, as such, in order to illustrate a basic point: it is the native religious traditions of Magi – as those outside the covenant – that prompt their search for the Christ who fulfills not only the Jewish covenant, but is also the expectations and spiritual longings of “the nations.”

One could think of the gifts of the Magi – like the fruits of our labor offered at the Eucharist – as signifying their own self-offering. In laying gold, frankincense, and myrrh at the feet of the Holy Child, they offer what they have and who they are – including their own religious identity – at the feet of Jesus, in act of humility and adoration. The iconic tableau of the wise men gathered around the child, shows us God’s love for “the nations,” and his desire to include them within his redemptive purpose in Christ.

 

Published in the December 2010 issue of The Albany Episopalian

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