By the Rev. Darren Miner
X Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany—sort of, but not really! The feast of the Epiphany will be celebrated in actuality on Tuesday. But the Gospel readings are, in fact, the same. So you can consider this a preview of coming attractions, like a movie trailer.
The Epiphany is an ancient Christian feast day, even older than Christmas. Like Christmas, it is a feast of the Incarnation. Since Incarnation happens to be the title of our parish, it is quite fitting that three of our stained glass windows touch on the visitation of the Magi, a story long-associated with Epiphany. We have three crowns, three gifts, and a miraculous star. You get extra credit if you can spot them! But the Epiphany has a somewhat narrower focus than Christmas; it focuses on the manifestation of the Incarnate God to the Gentiles. I like that word “manifestation,” but the more common word “appearing” works just as well. As you may know, the word “epiphany” comes from a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or “appearing.”
The Gospel reading for today is that well-known story of the Magi. The story is too well-known, in fact, for we know more than the Bible ever tells us! We know that there are three Magi, despite the fact that the Bible never gives us the number. We know that they are really foreign kings, despite there being no mention of this in the Scriptures. We know their names are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and that one of them is African (this latter fact was only ascertained in the 12th century).
We also know that the Gospel according to Matthew got the locale wrong. The Gospel says that the Magi entered the house of Joseph and Mary. If you take a look at any nativity scene, you’ll see that the Magi visit Jesus in a stable, which may, or may not, happen to be located in a cave—another late addition to the tradition! In any case, no nativity scene I have ever run across shows the Magi visiting a plain old house.
So what do we really, really know? Some unknown number of Magi, who may have been Zoroastrian priests, but were certainly pagan astrologers, travel in search of a great king whose birth has been foretold in the heavens. But astrology gets them only so far. When they get to Jerusalem, they must consult with the king and his religious scholars to determine what only divine revelation could tell them, the exact location of the Messiah’s birth.
Herod, being a great liar, hopes to dupe the Magi into revealing the Messiah, so that Herod can have him killed. The Magi go on their way. The miraculous star that led them to Jerusalem reappears and leads them to Bethlehem. Now why they needed a star to lead them only six miles to a hamlet on the outskirts of Jerusalem, I don’t know!
Now this wandering star has puzzled rational minds for the last couple of centuries. Astronomers have posited that the so-called moving star was really a comet. Others have shown that a great conjunction of planets occurred about the time of Jesus’ birth. But I think all such speculation is in vain. The Gospel is talking about a miraculous event, that may, or may not, have been visible to anyone other than the Magi in question. In any case, the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem never took any notice of this wondrous celestial event.
The Magi bring three gifts to the baby Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Odd gifts to bring a little baby, don’t you think! Now there are two possible explanations: 1) men are bad shoppers, and 2) the gifts are the fulfilment of prophecy. You see, two of these gifts, gold and frankincense, are the gifts that Isaiah prophesied that the Gentile nations would bring to some great, yet-to-come King of the Jews. Later Christian tradition assigned more specific meanings to each of the three gifts: gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh (a burial spice) for one destined even at his birth to die a prophet’s death. In any case, it is to be noted that the gifts that the Magi bring are very costly gifts.
Late tradition says that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem twelve days after Jesus’ birth, but some early Christian writers thought the trip took about two years, which would explain why Herod slaughtered all male babies two years and under.
The historicity of every detail of this story has been a bone of contention with scholars; and some fundamentalists would argue that the story is worthless unless one accepts each detail as historical fact. I disagree. The point of this captivating story is not to express a factual truth, so much as to express a theological truth. And that theological truth is quite simply this: the Jewish Messiah was sent to save non-Jews, as well as Jews. This is a truth that we Gentile Christians take completely for granted. But in the early Church, as St. Paul well knew, this truth was anything but self-evident.
This truth about the Messiah’s salvific mission should not be understood in a triumphalist way, as if Christianity is all saving truth and other faiths are all demonic falsehood. Instead, we should take away the truth that through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, salvation is offered to all humankind as a free gift, even to “ritually unclean” Gentiles like the Magi—even to Gentiles like us here today! How the gift of salvation may, or may not, be accepted and received by good people of other faith traditions is a mystery known only to God.
For those who would accept this free gift of salvation, the take-home message is first and foremost this: be exceedingly grateful! Then out of your gratitude, seek out Christ. Seek him out no matter the personal cost. And wherever and whenever you encounter him, offer up the very best you have to offer, up to and including your very selves.
Now where, I wonder, might you find Christ? Where does he hang out? Well, one place would be the Holy Scriptures, especially the Gospels. Many a saint has found Christ in the Gospels! Another locale frequented by the Christ is mentioned in the prayer book’s Baptismal Covenant, which asks us to seek and serve Christ in all persons. In other words, Christ may be found in the people you encounter both in and out of church. Christ is even found in that certain someone who is always “pushing your buttons” and “ticking you off.” He may be hard to see, but he is there too! Last but not least, Christ was notorious for his dinner parties, and he could always be found reclining around a table with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells. Even after 2000 years, Christ can be found hanging around a table, just like that table over there. So, seek no further. Your journey for now is over. Come, join the Christ at his table and offer up your gifts, whatever they may be, with thanksgiving.
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.