“The Journey of the Magi” (1894) by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French painter and illustrator, 1836-1902), oil on canvas.
I’m an artist at self-accusation and remorse. Accuse me of anything – lust, greed, pride, gluttony, laziness, work a-holism, launching the Vietnam War, bombing Pearl Harbor – and I’ll plead sweat-riddled guilt.
It seems this day was made for me and all other nail-biters. January 6th, 2017, marks Epiphany. We Christians party-up for three reasons: God’s incarnation (the Almighty became a sinless human), Jesus’s baptism (the sinless one represented sinners in a ceremonial sin-washing ceremony), and the Magi’s arrival on the Holy Family’s doorstep (flagrant pagan sinners – outright goyim – accepted God’s invitation, followed His path to the Promised Land, delivered three gifts to the Jewish Messiah, and knelt before Him).
The magi event crowds out the day’s other dimensions in the popular imagination, perhaps because it makes for great manger scenes. Scholars tell us they didn’t actually arrive until Jesus was a toddler, which presents us with one of history’s unsolved theological dilemmas: How did a sinless god-man survive the “terrible twos”?
It will remain a mystery until Gabriel blows his horn.
Meanwhile, we’ll relish the larger reality conveyed in those scenes: Rich dignitaries from the East, the land of Israel’s dreaded conquerors, assume the same position as hillbilly shepherds before a god who chose helplessness. Power mongers, like Herod, jail themselves in temporal castles, imprisoned amid threats and paranoia and yes-men who’d rather poison their food.
And there’s more, especially for sweaters like me: The magi were, in fact, guilty as sin. If God reached into their world and guided them to Abraham’s home, then there’s hope for all of us responsible for the fall of Saigon. The magi were magicians, and I don’t mean they were harmless souls oooing us with card tricks. They practiced divination, sorcery, and astrology – all of which met the Hebrew Bible’s frown. Magi also appear in Daniel 1:20, 2:27, 5:15 and Acts 8:9, 13:6 and 8, where they’re bad guys.
Yet God met them where they were (a star beckoned them out of their pagan lairs), spoke to them in dreams, and showed them the downward path leading to paradise. They were the first gentiles to kneel before the gentile’s light (see Isaiah 49:6), goyim glimmering the first flames of hope for a goy like me.
I see it now: God is reaching into my guilt-riddled world and lighting my downward path to freedom, a path He walked himself (see Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”). I can refuse the lure into the alpha world, where would-be CEO’s spike their blood pressure and political parties squabble and Hollywood stars claw their way to the top of a scandal-ridden hill. It’s a world of back-biting and character assassination, emulating Herod’s palace far more than the nativity scene.
I’ll discover something as I follow that path: I’ve stopped sweating, even though I’m the lone individual responsible for the bubonic plague.