The Magi in Peru

Elise Ashley Hanley
The Feast of the Epiphany, transferred
7 January 2018
Matthew 1:1-12
Trinity on the Green

As some of you may know, my spouse, Chris and I have just returned from a journey to Peru. Our reason for going was for the celebration the marriage of his only sibling. His sister moved to Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, 3 years ago, and last May, she married a Peruvian man in a civil ceremony- one whom no one in the family nor in her group of friends had yet met, until last week.

Going on this journey, I often thought of the Magi, or the Wise Ones. I did question just how wise we were being – we were to be traveling for many hours immediately after Christmas, already exhausted and both ill with sinus infections. We were also traveling to Cusco during its off-season – the rainy season – and yes, that is an accurate description. Cusco is also over 11,000 feet above sea level, and many people suffer from altitude sickness for their first few days there. We were arriving less than 24 hours before the wedding celebration. Was any of this wise?

It didn’t matter, for we had to go, we so wanted to go. We so wanted to be present for the wedding celebration, to meet her new husband and his family. To see where she was living, more than 3000 miles away from us. To try to understand what about the city, its culture, and people had lured her away and kept her there. And like the Wise Ones, we wanted to show up – and pay homage, show our respect and love, with gifts. And, after all, as a bonus, we’d get to go to Machu Picchu – the ancient, Incan citadel located high in the Andes – how could two we resist?

Like the Wise Ones, we also wanted revelation. Neither of us had been to South America before. We wanted to understand people and cultures and ideas that were different.  We wanted to understand Chris’ sister’s choice, to move so far away from family and friends. And, if nothing else, perhaps we too could have a high spiritual moment, high up in the Andes. We were excited, in this season of Christmastide, to meet God in new and different people and places.

As it turns out, altitude sickness is real – we both almost fainted just off the plane!  Another effect of the altitude was that we were exhausted for days. But like the Wise Ones, we had taken a chance. Like the Wise Ones, we sought guidance along the way – often because our Spanish was so limited.  And ultimately, we also relied, like the Wise Ones, on what we could sense and discern for our travel, for our lives and relationships, and for what our future choices might be.

Who were the Magi? Traditionally, one of three answers has been given.

  1. They may have been magicians, or Zorastrians, who practiced divination or enchantment.
  2. They may have been Court priests, serving the rulers of Persia, in what is present-day Iran. At least one scholar argues that as such, they may have been part of a rebellion that attempted to end the rule of cruel and arbitrary rulers, which would give their presence in this story overtones of subversion and change. Salt to taste.
  3. Or – they were astrologers – star gazers and star studiers – who interpreted the heavens, and told leaders of their meaning. As such, they could pay a heavy price if their message was not what their rulers wanted.1

As much as we have grown accustomed to “We Three Kings,” no number is mentioned. And the names Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India, is an Armenian tradition: they are not listed in our Biblical account.

Whoever they were exactly they were likely quite learned. And they were seekers. They were risk takers. And they wanted to see and experience God in Jesus.

The Wise Ones likely lived a disciplined life of study to know and understand the coming of the messiah. Our text does not specify the number of them, nor their gender identity. Their traveling party could have been quite large and diverse – I’d like to imagine it was so. They traveled quite a long distance, and they brought costly and symbolic gifts that would have been standard to offer a king: gold to represent Christ’s majesty, frankincense as perfume, and myrrh, an anointing oil used in the preparation for burial, foreshadowing his premature death. I imagine the arrival of these ornamented, well-to-do out-of-towners in Bethlehem, coming to learn about some poor, local kid, may have been as exciting and questionable as our arrival as wealthy and fussy white American tourists in a developing country.

As it is the New Year, it is a common time for resolutions, a time to examine our lives and make decisions about how we may want to change or grow.

What star are we following? What different star might each of us need to follow this year? What will help all of us to ultimately journey to Jesus? Now is a good time to become disciplined and discerning like those Wise Ones – to find a new practice or habit and try it. Maybe the Daily Office, or other daily prayer will help you. Maybe it’s more exercise, yoga, or sleep. Maybe it is an overdue journey to see a loved one. Maybe it is a religious or spiritual pilgrimage. How is God still speaking to each of us? Because God is!

And those Wise Ones – they went home by another road. They resisted the King. I often wonder if they eventually got caught somehow. What or who might we need to resist? What might we need to say a loud and solid “no” to, even if our lives or our relationships depend on it?

We left Peru, and went home by another way, and we are so glad to be back home here at Trinity and in New Haven. In this new year, may we all recharge ourselves. May we strengthen ourselves and each other in our mission to learn, grow, serve, and love our neighbors as ourselves. May we try to be as wise, disciplined, discerning, and generous as the Magi.

(And finally, one last bit of guidance: if you travel to Peru, don’t go in the rainy season.)



1 See Feasting on the Word – Exegetical Perspective by William R. Herzogg II for Epiphany, Year B.



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