By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today, we officially celebrate the Second Sunday after Christmas and the last day of the Christmas season, and we unofficially celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. I say, “unofficially,” for while tomorrow is the actual feast day, the Gospel readings are, in fact, identical. 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 have to do with the visitation of the Magi, a story long-associated with the Epiphany. We have three crowns, three gifts, and a miraculous star. (You get extra credit if you can spot them later!) But the Epiphany differs from Christmas, that other great feast of the Incarnation, in that it has a narrower focus: the appearance of the Incarnate God to the Gentiles.
The Gospel reading for today is that well-known story of the Magi. The story is too well-known, in fact, for we think that we know more than we really do! We think that there are precisely three Magi, despite the fact that the Bible never specifies their number. We think that the Magi are really foreign kings, despite there being no mention of this in the Scriptures. We think that we know their names—Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—information St. Matthew never provides. And we even think we know better than the Gospel about where the event took place. For the Gospel says that the Magi visited the Holy Family in a house, whereas every nativity scene in the world shows the Magi headed for a stable.
So what do we really, really know? Just this…some unknown number of Magi, Zoroastrian priests from Persia, 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 Jewish religious scholars to determine what only divine revelation can 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. So he has his priests and scribes assist the Magi by giving them the name of the town where the Messiah is to be born, Bethlehem of Judea. The Magi start out for Bethlehem, following that same miraculous star that first guided them to Jerusalem. (Now why they needed a star to lead them the last six miles to Bethlehem, I don’t know. But then again, I get lost driving across town without GPS!)
Now this wandering star has puzzled rational minds for the last couple of centuries. Scientists have tried to prove that the wandering star was really a comet or a planetary conjunction. For then, they might determine the exact moment of our Savior’s birth. But in my opinion, all such scientific speculation is in vain. For the Gospel is clearly talking about a miracle, not a natural event.
According to St. Matthew’s account, the Magi bring three gifts to the baby Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Odd gifts to bring a little baby, don’t you think! I would have thought that diapers, a warm blanket, and a proper crib would have been more useful. Now there are two possible explanations for these strange gifts: 1) men are really bad shoppers, or 2) the gifts are the fulfilment of prophecy. The correct answer is #2: the gifts have a prophetic meaning. According to tradition, the gift of gold symbolized that the child would be a king; frankincense, that he would be a priest; and myrrh, which was a burial spice, that he was destined to die a prophet’s death.
While scientists debate about the wandering star, biblical scholars argue about whether any part of this story can possibly be historical fact. I will leave them to their debate. It matters little to me, one way or the other. For the point of this captivating story is to express a theological truth, not a historical one. And that theological truth is just this: the Jewish Messiah was sent to save non-Jews, as well as Jews. And for most of us here today, that is life-changing news indeed.
Think about this: the Magi were Gentiles, priests of the god Ahura Mazda, who left their homeland and traveled far to acknowledge that salvation comes from the Jews—or to be more precise—from their Messiah. Through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, salvation has been offered to all humankind as a free gift. All that is required is for us to accept that gift with gratitude and to let it transform our lives. The Magi responded to this great gift with the most costly gifts that they could give in return: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The question I leave you with today is this: what gifts of gratitude are you willing to bring to honor your Lord and Savior?
© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.