Following the Light

If you follow the light, you’re never quite sure where it might lead you… Whenever I read this lesson of the Magi, those ancient visitors to the Christ Child in Bethlehem, I am mindful of many other great explorers throughout history: Ferdinand Magellan, whose crew was the first to sail around the globe; Percy Fawcett, whose legendary exploits were lost with him in the jungles of the Amazon in the 1920s; Amelia Earhart who flew solo across the Atlantic before disappearing somewhere over the Pacific. But before all of these legends came the great Marco Polo.

In the 13th century, Polo accompanied his father and uncle on a 15,000 mile, 24-year journey into China and back. His travels were chronicled in a book, which mostly illustrates the mind of a trader, not a traveler. There are details of goods and accounting of expenses. But one stop in Persia in particular seems to have grabbed his attention, and mine.

In the city of Saba, Polo encountered the graves of three holy men. Local legend linked their story to the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrian, one of the oldest monotheistic faiths, still practiced today in parts of Iran and India. According to the people Polo met, these three had traveled with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In exchange, this miracle child had given them the gift of fire. Fire, in Zoroastrianism, is a means of purification, and still has a central place in the faith today. In other words, the origin stories of both Christianity and Zoroastrianism had been conflated into one story that captured Polo’s imagination.

The monuments Polo described no longer exist, and these stories are long lost to the ravages of time. But Polo’s remembrances highlight details of our gospel lesson that we might otherwise miss.

There are competing theories as to the identities of these ancient visitors to Bethlehem that Matthew describes, but the most popular one sees their origin as Persia. First, the word “Magi” is a Persian word that has been imported into the ancient Greek text. The Magi were the Zoroastrian priestly class, whose many practices included astronomy, reading the stars for signs from the heavens. In the 7th century, when the Zoroastrian Persian Empire conquered the Christian Byzantine Empire and captured ancient Palestine, the Persians leveled all of the churches – that is, except for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. At the time, the relief above the door showed three Persian priests kneeling before the Christ child, likely giving the conquerors enough pause to stop the destruction.

All of these factors point to the conclusion that the Magi were Persians, and the Zoroastrian version gives its own flavor to the lesson that can teach us something important today. After all, we never know where the light of faith might lead us.

Persia makes several appearances in scripture, none more important than when the ancient Israelites had been defeated and then taken into captivity in Babylon. It was during this time that our Old Testament lesson, Isaiah’s prophecy, was pronounced. In it, the Israelites are promised the restoration of their ancient fortunes with herds of camel bearing gifts of dedication and obligation. For a people utterly dejected, this promise was welcome news, no doubt, but also probably sounded like the stuff of utter fantasy. The Babylonian Empire was quite repressive. The book of Daniel describes how the Israelite religious customs were forbidden, a repression that was often backed up with violence.

When the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians, the Israelites became subjects of Cyrus, the Zoroastrian King of Persia. It was he who gave them permission to return to their land (which had also come under his rule), and it was he who afforded them with the means to rebuild their Temple, which the Babylonians had destroyed. Such is the regard with which Cyrus was held that he is referred to in scripture as “Messiah”, God’s anointed, a holy servant through whom the Israelites found their deliverance from cruel captivity and who offered them a possible hope of restoration.

Cyrus’ Persia was a unique place in the ancient world. It was a far-reaching empire, and as such controlled vast amounts of territory as well as the people who lived there. Though the goal was ultimately power and wealth for Persia, Cyrus’ approach couldn’t have been more different from that of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The nations under Persian control were left to practice their cultures and traditions undisturbed – that is, as long as they paid their obligations to Persia. For the ancient world, it was quite the enlightened empire.

And Cyrus’ great city of Persepolis was built as a monument to this tolerance. Carved into relief in its stones are images of the nations bringing their tribute. But rather than rendering them in some kind of Persian artistry, each nation is represented with its unique cultural clothing and its own local specialty or tribute. It seems that Cyrus was keen to learn what he could and thereby benefit from those under his command, all of which led to a prolonged reign and a flowering of knowledge.

Such was his influence on the region that the Greek word for Lord, Kyrios, is a derivative of the name Cyrus.

So as the gospel lesson unfolds, it is not a stretch to imagine those who encounter the Magi remembering all of this and treating them with a level of welcome and respect unusual for the age. But here’s the flip: rather than the Israelites bringing tribute to Persia, these Persian holy men bring their tribute of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And following the light that led them, they present these gifts to the promised king, the infant Jesus.

It’s all very convenient to look back at this from our perspective of the present, but what happened unfolded over centuries! Babylon conquered Israel; Isaiah promised restoration; Persia conquered Babylon; the Israelites returned, with partial restoration; Jesus was born; and Isaiah’s promise comes true!

But note the surprise in what God does, because following the light won’t necessarily lead us to where we think we should go. The restoration that Jesus brings is not the one the people expected. There was no coup, no overthrow of the corrupt Herod, and no removal of the Roman authorities. No sooner had the Magi left than the holy family flees to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. When Jesus grows up, he wanders the countryside gathering the poor and the outcast, not the rich and powerful, to his side. And his triumphal entry into Jerusalem leads to his arrest, conviction, and execution. Not much in the way of a royal narrative; not much in the way of a cultural or national restoration.

And that’s exactly the point, I think. Not only does following the light of God’s promises rarely lead where we want.; it often takes us to places we would never, ever imagine.

Does that ring true for you? If you could go back ten years, would you have predicted that 2014 would look like it does for you? Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one for blaming God for every twist in our lives. There are things that happen because of choices we make, and there are things that happen simply because the world is the way it is, an imperfect reality with imperfect and even heartbreaking outcomes.

No: this is about a deeper purpose, of following God’s light where it leads, of especially recognizing the places where that light has shown us the way in the dark. It’s about those people, those anointed ones, those servants of God, whose words or actions opened up new possibilities and greater restorations to us at the times we most needed it. And much like with the Biblical story of God at work in the world, it is much easier to look back and see the patterns than it is to project forward to where it might lead.

The greater point is this: reading the heavens for the signs, for the lights we should follow, is about paying attention. It means living lives of heightened awareness to the presence of God around us. It calls us to practices and disciplines of prayer and study that build our capacity to see the light and to see it with clarity, as if seeing it for the first time.

I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but I want to invite you to make one – just one – commitment with me to begin this year.  And that is to pray, daily, to listen for God’s wisdom, to look for God’s light wherever it shines.