An Encounter of Your Own

In the communal life of Christians, texts are performative. They draw communities together into networks of meaning and significance. Without a doubt, scriptures and stories should be read by the individual. And when the Word of God is present, then the act of reading in solitude will provide opportunity for reflection, revelation, and guidance.

But above all, scriptures and stories should be read in community. They should be heard, performed, and practiced. And when the Word is present, then the Christian faithful will return again and again, to discuss, comment, and worship. Through these communal encounters, the Word can guide believers to greater understanding and connection, with each other and with God. A new book shows just how powerful a book can be in revealing mysteries known only to God, and yet graciously and generously revealed to His people.

Brent Landau's groundbreaking English translation of the early Christian apocryphal work Revelation of the Magi is pregnant with just such possibility. Lying in obscurity in the Vatican vault where Landau found it, this inspired little text does not shed fresh light on the historical nativity. But it possesses the capability of guiding Christian communities into fresh encounters with the pure joy that flows from understanding God's great gift of incarnation. This ancient tale of the devout wise men of Matthew, overflowing with devotion to the Lord, is a windfall for Christians just entering the season of Advent, when we prepare for Jesus' birth and God's approaching salvation of the world.

Landau, a Ph.D. from Harvard's Divinity School, estimates that the original tale of the Revelation of the Magi dates from the late 2nd or early 3rd century. The version he discovered in the Vatican vault and used for his English translation is from the 8th century. The Revelation presents a lengthy and highly imaginative first-person account of the story of the wise men from the East who followed a star to the house of the baby Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew first tells us about them, and they have come to play a central role in every Christian crèche, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

As the stars of their own book, the Magi become something very different from our usual images of Kings from Persia or Babylon, east of Jerusalem. In their own words, they are not astronomers, astrologers, or interpreters of dreams. They are not really even "magi," in the sense of magicians, wizards, or other masters of occult sciences. In their own words, they are worshippers of the one true God, men who worship in silence in their mythical home of Shir, where they study and adore the books of mysteries handed down to them from Adam through his son Seth. 

One day, at their "Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries," the Christ child comes to them and informs them that He will lead them on a journey to the place of His birth. The Magi of Shir follow this extraordinary star to Bethlehem and home again, rejoicing and adoring the Christ child as He instructs them in the deep and redemptive meaning of the incarnation, and of God's love for humanity.

While the Wise Men's tale of these miraculous events is vivid and detailed, there is at least as much revelation of spiritual truth in these pages as there is action and plot developments. But in both areas, this ancient exploration of Matthew's brief mention of the mysterious visit of the Magi has great value for Christian faith communities.

While there is much here to move the individual reader, I recommend reading it in small groups. I recommend skipping the Introduction in favor of an unmediated encounter with the text itself, beginning on page 35. I would read it slowly, in small chunks, and take time to visualize it and discuss it. 

The visualization of these incredibly vivid passages is a powerful path to revelatory insight. We can't rely on the book's illustrations, since they have the quality of really bad photocopies. But we can be inspired by the medieval artists, and make our own pictures. In the unlikely event that you don't have someone with some drawing skill in your group, go ahead and post large sheets of white paper in the room where you meet. If you can't draw pictures of what you read, use large keywords to describe it. Collaborate on this, and see what revelations emerge from your visualizations. For example, imagine this from chapter 5:

And we went up to the Mountain of Victories, and when we were all assembled at the foothills of the mountain from each one's dwelling place, we remained in one place for purification on the twenty-fifth day of each month. And we bathed in a certain spring that was on the foothills of the mountain, and it is called 'The Spring of Purification.' And seven trees stood over it: an olive, a vine, a myrtle, [a cypress], an orange, a cedar, and a juniper. And that mountain was altogether incomparably more beautiful and desirable than all the mountains in our land, and the smell of all sweet spices effused from it, and the dew that was sprinkled was a sweet smell.

12/3/2010 5:00:00 AM
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  • Beth Davies-Stofka
    About Beth Davies-Stofka
    Beth Davies-Stofka teaches courses on comparative religion and the philosophy of religion. Her teaching and research focus in two areas: the challenges that violence and human suffering present to theological ethics, and explorations of philosophy and...