Musings on the Magi (and Jesus in the Mess)

This is a Jesusy post. For those of you who don’t identify with Christianity and who’ve been reading here for a long time anyway, can I just say? Thank you for sticking around. Thank you for trusting me to be kind. Thank you for being my friend and believing the best of me. That’s not an easy thing to do when the news is often full of Christians who say cruel things, and I just want you to know how much I appreciate you.

I didn’t write this as a blog post. I wrote this for my church, at their invitation to share this Sunday-before-Christmas some reflections about the Magi. The Wise Men. The Three Kings who may not have been three in number and almost certainly weren’t kings. So I want to say thank you to my church family, too. Thank you for allowing me to speak the Truth as honestly as I can. Thank you for accepting me even though the path I travel to Jesus is sometimes weird and wonky and off-kilter. And, most especially, thank you for actively believing that the Light of God exists in all people. You guys are weirdos — honest, open, thoughtful, wise weirdos — which is why I love you very much.


Musings on the Magi (and Jesus in the Mess)

Advent is the one time of year I’m relieved of my spiritual doubt. Or maybe doubt isn’t the best word to describe my constant questions the rest of the year. My ongoing analysis of faith. My perpetual testing and trying and weighing and measuring.

But Advent arrives just when my soul is at its weariest, and I suppose it’s not strange at all to find rest in this season. To find myself deep inside the winter’s darkness and to perform that most human and Godly act which is to believe against all outward evidence that the Light is coming.

The story of the Magi is an odd one to appear at the beginning of the Gospels. We land in Chapter 2 of Matthew – chapter 2 of the entire New Testament – and in wander the pagans. Right at the start. Like they belong there. Matthew says they came from “the east.” Scholars have speculated they came from Persia, Arabia, possibly India, and although the word “Magi” refers to a Persian religious caste, when this gospel was written the term was loosely used for astrologers, seers, or fortunetellers.

If we look at the players in the Nativity story, the people who knew what was happening, most learned by angelic proclamation what was going on. Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and the shepherds – they got angels. And specific information. And do not be afraids. Elizabeth knew without an angel appearing; we don’t know how. And the Magi knew. The only explanation, the one they gave as they wandered around Jerusalem chatting people up is this: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

We saw his star, they said.

That’s it.

We saw his star. And they recognized the Light for what it was.

They put together an expedition to find the king of the Jews. But the how of it all? How they knew the star was his? That part’s not answered. We don’t know. We just know they showed up as soon as they could after the King did. That, whatever they saw in the stars, it was too good to miss. So good, in fact, that when the star led them to a humble house and into the presence of a carpenter’s small son, they fell down and worshiped.

And I wonder. What must their suspension of disbelief have been like? How enormous their choice to have faith? How clear their celestial message? To buy into that modest and foreign scene so thoroughly as to follow through and worship Jesus as King?

For those of us in the Church, the path they took toward the Light and the Truth –astrology, astronomy, the coming of a King written in outer space — that’s not a path we recognize. Certainly not one that makes us comfortable, I think. At best, it’s a wonky, weird, off-kilter path to Jesus. At worst, it hits on taboos we’re taught to reject and avoid.

And yet what strikes me every year in the Jesus story – every year in a different way, every year through a different player – is the fact that no matter how much we try to sanitize God, to simplify the Bible, to create strict boundaries and rules so our faith can make sense and so everyone will just behave, Jesus insists on being made manifest in mess.

This life we live is complicated. Horrible. Beautiful. Triumphant. But it’s a mess. And the Light enters in.

We’ve all heard people say, “Close the door! Were you born in a barn?” Maybe the reason Jesus doesn’t close the door on us is because he was born in a barn — a real, dirty, grimy, non-glamorous barn – and so he understands our mess.

 “And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:7

God knew.

God knew about the mess.

God knew that becoming God With Us meant inserting Jesus into the muck and the mire, right into the gooey, sticky center of life. It meant sending a baby — The Baby — to be born in a barn and it meant leaving the barn door all the way open so a wild cast of misfit characters could show us the way.

This is what I know:

Jesus is made manifest in the mess, friends. Jesus was made manifest in the mess then. Jesus is made manifest in the mess now.

And this is what I don’t know, but I’m beginning to suspect:

I suspect that the people who are making their way toward the Light are not always the people we expect.

I suspect we have fellow Truth Seekers who are not necessarily traveling a spiritual path we recognize but who are as sincere as we are in their dogged pursuit of the Light of the World.

And I suspect they could teach us a thing or two about Seeking and Finding and then falling down to worship at the feet of a tiny king. If only we’d be on the lookout and welcome them through the barn door.

This is the season of Advent.

This is the season of the Light piercing the darkness.

This is the season of belief despite doubt.

This is the season of the Baby – the teeny, tiny baby that held all of Divinity inside of him – and this is the part I find no trouble believing at all because I am a mother and I know what it is to look into the face of a child and see the Divine looking back at me.

Advent arrives just when my soul is at its weariest, friends, and I suppose it’s not strange at all to find rest in this season. To find myself deep inside the winter’s darkness and to perform that most human and most Godly act which is to believe, like the Magi, that the Light is coming. That the Light, in fact, is already here. In this mess. Waiting with an open door.


bright star in space image credit nuttakit at

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23 responses to “Musings on the Magi (and Jesus in the Mess)”

  1. Have you seen the movie the Star of Bethlehem by Stephen McEveety? I love having the literal scientific information of the star! It is so awesome!

    Merry Christmas Beth! Thank you for your words of wisdom!!!

  2. Thanks Beth! I love your “I’m beginning to suspect” list. The longer I walk on this earth the more I’m beginning suspect the same things and I suspect God really is far out of the boxes we like to put Him in.

  3. Oh, Beth! You’re so wonderful.

    I am one of your Jewish readers, and I want you to know that I think you are truly marvelous, and I trust you implicitly with these kinds of things. I love this interpretation of Jesus’ birth and as I read it all I can think is that God does understand the mess, and from that understanding comes our greatest gift.

    Regardless of each of our own understandings of God and the divine, the best thing that unites us is the love and understanding that in all of our imperfection we are beautiful with potential.

    What a beautiful reminder of the love and acceptance the world holds for us… in all of our imperfection… in all of our mess. We’re still just as good (maybe better) than if we were pristine.

    Thanks, Beth… 🙂

  4. @Alicia E.
    See Daniel 4:9. Thats where Nebuchadnezzar called Daniel the Chief of the Magicians. In Matthew 2:1, it refers to the Wise Men, also known as Magi. According to Strong’s Concordance, the word “wise” in Matthew 2:1 means “magician”. The Bible is unclear on how many Magi made the journey. It was possibly hundreds of people. We usually think of three, because thats how many gifts were mentioned being brought. Its also interesting to note the significance of the gifts. Gold was a gift given to kings, and represents Jesus’ Kingship. It was also used as currency. When the decree went out to kill all the babys 2 years and under, Mary and Joseph may not have had time to pack up their things to take with them. The gold that was brought may have sustained them until they could return to their home where Josephs tools were, and how he supported his family. Frankincense was used by the priests and represented Jesus’ priesthood. The family could have given it as a sacrifice offering in the synagogue. It was used on the day of Atonement when Israel would offer sin offerings. Jesus was the Spotless Lamb that forever fulfilled the need for a sacrifice. Myrrh was the spice that was used in the embalming process and represents His death. Mary very well could have saved some or all of the Myrrh and used it at Jesus’ time of death.

    Sorry to hijack the comments Beth! I think its ironic that my husband just finished preaching on this and then you posted on this exact thing! Another great post! Loved it!

  5. I’ve also been musing on the Magi this year. Instead of a Christmas letter, I’ll be sending out an Epiphany letter discussing the amazing leap of faith they took. What a journey! No state troopers to keep the roads clear of bandits, no AAA in case a camel broke a leg, no guarantee that they would find the king they were looking for. But they went anyway. I pray for a faith so strong that I can take such leaps in life.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. @ Kristen James
    Is there any Bible verses about what your husband preached? I would love to dig deeper ! I recently watched The Nativity Story and planning on watching it with my family on Christmas and I think there were scenes about the wise men or Magi figuring out about the star and following it. It’s on YouTube if y’all are interested in watching. It’s a great movie!

  7. You are an amazing writer. And thinker. I loved this post and I’m crying now and don’t know why. Thank you.

    • I cried when I wrote it for church. And then again when I read it. But I think I know why. For me, it’s because I so desperately need the reminder that I’m OK. And that wonky, weird and off-kilter is OK. And that we get to be welcomers in this life — even this spiritual life — and not shunners. And that is a relief. A beautiful relief. And it looks a lot like Love.

      Thank you, Betsy.

  8. My husband actually spoke at church this morning about how the magi knew. The condensed version is this: It goes back about 600 years to the time of when Daniel was in Babylon. He was the chief of the magi during part of his time there. Daniel would have shared with the other magi the visions he had seen and the prophecies of the times to come. And then over the process of hundreds of years, these things were shared with newer magi and the prophecies were passed down from generation to generation.

  9. Thank you, Beth. I am one of your non-Christian readers. The cruelty of others whose beliefs are similar to yours does not reflect poorly on you. You seem like a lovely person. Belief is an important, powerful part of life for many, many people and I am generally happy that spirituality exists. What makes me sad is when religion is used in place of medicine, used to justify prejudices and hate, and used as an instrument of pain/death. I don’t know if I believe in a deity…but I could not support a denomination that imposed on others.

    Thank you for being so open and honest about your spirituality. I really like what you have to say about the Magi. I hope your offering was well-received.

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