On the Pilgrim's Trail with the Magi (A River Crossings Reflection)


My sabbatical, which is themed River Crossings, though I'm only beginning my second month of the journey, has taken on a sense of pilgrimage. As Diana Butler Bass wrote many years ago in a couple of her books, including Christianity for the Rest of Us, we can go through life spiritually as either tourists or as pilgrims. In our recent trip to Europe, which began in Zwingli's Zurich and ended after days on a river cruise in Amsterdam, we did the tourist thing, but as for me, it was also a pilgrimage. I I knew I wanted to visit Zwingli's church, but I found myself in a number of other spots that took on a pilgrim's sensibility. Among those places was Cologne, Germany. Cologne is home to one of the largest cathedrals in Europe. As I noted in an earlier post on my River Crossings journey, in visiting the Cologne Cathedral I was visiting a site that claimed to hold the bones of the Magi, the three wise men of Matthew 2. 

2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 
10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  (Matthew 2:1-12 NRSV)


The story of these relics begins in Constantinople, where they were apparently located before being moved in the early fourth century to Milan, and then in the 12th century from Milan to Cologne.  They were placed in a gold reliquary and now sit in the chancel of the Cathedral. As our guide noted, whether these are the bones of the magi or not is a matter of faith. She mentioned that scientific tests were done that suggest the bones date to the first century, which puts in proximity to the story, but the scholarly consensus is that the story itself legend. In fact, Jesus likely was born not in Bethlehem but in Nazareth. Nevertheless, the point here isn't the historicity of Matthew's story, but of its witness, and the witness of these bones contained in a golden reliquary.


Since I'm of the view that scripture can and does speak the word of God even from materials that might not bear the weight of the historian's gaze, I have always found the story of the Magi to be worthy of my attention. It speaks to the cruelty of our world as seen in the actions of Herod, but also of the witness of Gentiles to God's presence in Jesus. 

So, as we got off the boat in Cologne and made our way into the cathedral, I chose to spend some extra time in the cathedral, contemplating the witness of this story, and the countless pilgrims who have made their way to this space. I even lit a candle in honor of the Magi's witness. I don't normally light candles in churches, and yet int his time and place it seemed appropriate (and I took a picture of my candle as a record of my journey).

Whether these are the bones of the Magi, no one knows. The historian in me might want to explore that question in greater depth, though I don't think there is an answer. Instead, I went as a pilgrim, just as I did at other stops from Zwingli's Great Minster to St. Thomas's church in Strasbourg. Each of these spaces witnesses to the ongoing story of the faith passed on from generation to generation. May we continue to tell and retell the stories of the faith in new and in old ways, as we take the pilgrim's road. We may find God present and speaking in a gold box containing old bones or at a river crossing in one's hometown. 



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