Why did the Magi—pagan Babylonians—recognize what most of God’s people did not?
Advent began yesterday. The word Advent means the arrival of a notable person or event, in this case, Jesus’ birth. Christmas. It’s an arrival the Magi in the east noticed, having oriented their sights on the eastern sky for 500 years. But why 500 years?
The answer is found in the Babylonian exile, where Daniel served in the courts of the pagan kings ruling Babylon. He did so well that King Darius appointed him as Chief of the Magi, or wise men. God told Daniel how many years it would be until the death of the Messiah (Dan.9). Daniel told the Magi. The Magi marked the years—roughly 500.
But there’s a milieu in the Babylonian exile, a background, that’s not to be overlooked: the marital gospel, God “marrying” us. It’s seen in Isaiah and Jeremiah’s letters to the exiles. “Your creator is your husband” (Isa.65:4). But the Judeans had broken God’s marital covenant (Jer.31:32). As the bridegroom, the Messiah will renew it (31:33-34). Daniel would have been familiar with this milieu, passing it on as Chief of the Magi to the rest of the Babylonian Magi. This, in turn, would orient them toward the eastern sky.
Say what? Yes, Daniel would have also been familiar with Psalm 19:5, “the morning sun’s a new husband, leaping from his honeymoon bed.” Like the sun rising in the east, so shall the Messiah, the Bridegroom, arise like “a star out of Jacob” (Num.22-24). As Chief of the Magi, Daniel would have passed this on to the Magi, orienting them toward the eastern sky.
Sure enough, right on time, a star appeared in the east. The King of the Jews was born, the Bridegroom. There is however no mention of God’s people noticing this star. Hard to miss, unless their attention was oriented in other directions, perhaps toward Rome and the hope of a militaristic Messiah who would conquer the Evil Empire.
The Magi had no such misplaced hopes. They went to Jerusalem, unfamiliar with Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Not unreasonable, since Micah lived and died far away from Babylon. The Magi arrive, asking King Herod, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Mt.2:2).
It’s a lovely story—but what does this have to do with us?
Advent is meaning-full inside a certain milieu: the marital gospel, God “marrying” us. Church traditions based on ancient foundations recognize this. They traditionally pray their liturgy ad orientem (toward the east / the rising of the sun) to orient the Bride toward the coming of the Bridegroom and set her in procession to meet him. It’s no coincidence that most of the older churches in Annapolis are situated so that worshippers face eastward.
It’s also no coincidence that these churches recognize Advent as a time of preparation and penitence. Preparation, as the Bride is to prepare to be presented to her husband (II Cor.11:2). Penitence, as most of Jesus’ parables on preparing for his coming indicate that most of his Bride won’t be. Advent, like Lent, is designed to sober us (I Pet.5:8).
We see this in the Advent wreath candles. Three are purple, symbolizing the penitential design of Advent. Penitence calls for worship music in minor keys. Quiet. Reflective. The third Advent candle on the wreath is pink, or rose, which often depicts the Bride. It represents a shift in the season of Advent away from penitence, towards celebration.
My sense is most of this eastern orientation is lost on western Christianity. For example, how many western Christians know that our term “orient” is derived from the Latin word for “east,” indicative of how the church once shaped the language of the wider world?
Or how many western Christians understand what is meant by liturgy? The term liturgy comes from the Greek, meaning “public work.” In two-thirds of the worldwide church, her public work involves orienting our bodies toward the coming of the Bridegroom, preparing as his Bride to meet him. Do most of our liturgies in western Christianity reflect this?
Or how many western Christians understand our physical bodies? Augustine wrote of ordering our loves. But ordering requires orienting our bodies, positioning them toward some point, direction, or destination. Most of western Christianity lacks this orientation. Like most Judeans in Babylon, we’re oriented in other directions, either the western Enlightenment with its focus on educating minds, or Washington and politicization.
I’m against politicization but for educating minds. But the latter requires orienting our bodies (see Romans 12:1,2). Advent, rightly practiced, is a step in the right direction, as it aligns our bodies with an ancient eastern orientation.