Christmas Advent HERO

It’s What’s Happening

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy:
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: The Three Wise Men” (named Balthassar, Melchior, and Gaspar). Detail from: “Mary and Child, surrounded by angels,” mosaic of a Ravennate italian-byzantine workshop, completed within 526 AD by the so-called “Master of Sant’Apollinare.” Photo credit: Nina Aldin Thune

The story of the Wise Men (or Magi) who bring gifts to Jesus is both beloved and odd. On the one hand, it’s familiar to many — most every manger scene has the three fancy-dressed men and a camel. On the other, who are these guys? Are they even real? There are so many potential questions, one might miss another all-together weird dynamic: their verbs. 

Schoolhouse Rock tells us that verbs are what’s happening. It’s never been more true than here. 

When the Magi show up in Jerusalem, they explain to a stressed out and paranoid King Herod that they have come looking for the King of the Jews to “pay him homage.” That’s how the New Revised Standard Version, an English translation of the original Greek, puts it. It’s an important verb in this story. It’s what’s happening. It appears twice more: Herod promises to do it, once he has all the information, and the Magi do it once they reach their destination. But the phrase “pay homage,” which means to show deep respect, doesn’t get to their actual action as described by Matthew’s choice of verb. 

What’s happening is proskyneo (“pro-sky-NE-o”). It means to bow down before another so low that you kiss their feet. Ancient writers tell us that it’s the way Persian subordinates displayed their adoration for and obedience to their superiors. They also tell us that westerners (like Greeks) thought the behavior odd, exotic, and probably inappropriate. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the verb gets used only when people are showing reverence to God or a divine emissary. Only God is worthy of proskyneo. Here in Matthew, these Persians, who know how to proskyneo, do exactly that before the infant Jesus. They might simply be reverencing human royalty. After all, it’s in their culture to do so. But Matthew seems to be suggesting something else. 

The gospels of Mark and Matthew have several stories in common. Many of them describe people interacting with Jesus. Mark uses a variety of verbs to describe their actions. They kneel before him, they fall at his feet or they are utterly astounded. Sometimes, they are just described as asking Jesus for something. In every one of these stories, Matthew’s version is careful to ascribe to these people before Jesus the verb of the magi – though the English translations usually miss this detail

I think Matthew is teaching us at least two really important things. First, something that the Magi knew instinctively – that Jesus, who is God come among us, is worthy of our worship. He is worthy of our proskyneo. Second (and this is very interesting coming through Matthew’s gospel, the one most interested in the connection between Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures), when the Magi come to worship, they don’t come as people of the Covenant and they don’t see Jesus as the Messiah of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They come to him in terms of their own culture and their own theological framework. They come in terms of their own hopes and longings. They come looking for one who will bring salvation, as they understand it. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will gather his followers (and they will proskyneo before him) and he will commission them to go to all of the nations with his teaching. On their way they will take that same Gospel and share it in a variety of ways, every time seeking to connect it to the hopes and longings of their hearers

What are you hoping for in 2020? Perhaps you long for affirmation or companionship, for peace and confidence, for healing and restoration. The salvation that Jesus brings answers to all these hopes and more. This is not to say that Jesus is some sort of untrustworthy shapeshifter of salvation. Rather, the salvation—the life—that God brings is so abundant, so complex, so creative, as to be apprehended in an innumerable variety of ways – as unique as each one he calls to himself.

He is worthy of our proskyneo.

Pastor Jim

Jan. 8, 2020

University Pastor James Wetzstein and Deaconess Kristin Lewis take turns writing weekly reflections. You can contact Deaconess Kristin here and Pastor Jim here