“The Magi’s Gift”
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles–for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
On this blessed New Year’s Day, January 1st, 2023, we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord. Epiphany means manifestation, and what was made manifest was God’s coming to dwell among us. The birth story of Jesus that we continue to remember and share together returns us today to his birthplace in Bethlehem. Upon Jesus’ birth, a bright and shining new star appeared in the sky over the Bethlehem. This was a significant sign for the Magi who travelled to Bethlehem from the East to pay him homage. Kristin Swenson, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, informs us that “Magi” is a Greek term that describes a wealthy class of Persian Priests who followed stars much as is done in our modern science of Astronomy. These Persian Priests believed that the stars, planets and heavens revealed information about the activities of the gods. They were familiar with the Jewish prophecies concerning a promised Messiah, and when they saw the dawn of this new star, it is likely they who travelled to Bethlehem to find him following that star. When they had arrived at the place the star indicated, the scriptures found in the Gospel of Matthew reveal that they entered the house, knelt in homage before the holy child and his mother, Mary, and then presented him with a treasure trove of rich gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The writings of the Prophet Isaiah are often read during the Advent and Christmas seasons, because they share visions and truths about the promised Messiah of God. Chapter 60 of this book proclaims a familiar prophecy about the true nature of the promised Messiah, and about the visitation of wealthy “kings” from the East to affirm and honor him. It reads:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; and those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
The gifts the Magi presented to Jesus are believed to symbolically reveal important truths about this holy child. Gold, in ancient times just as today, was a symbol of wealth and power. Frankincense was a rich fragrance used for expensive perfumes and incense. Myrrh was a rich additive to the oil used both to anoint kings and in ancient embalming materials and rites. It has been seen by some scholars as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ultimate death and burial. These gifts the Magi presented to Jesus reveal to us his royal stature as the true king of kings, even though his birthplace and childhood were humble and mostly kept secluded from public view.
Swenson’s article also recalls for us many of the traditions passed down through the ages about the visitation of the Magi that are not recounted in the story that is found in Matthew’s Gospel, the only Gospel to include this story. For example, the scriptures do not indicate that there were three members of the Magi from the East who came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. As early as the 2nd century C.E., tradition elevated the Magi to the title of kings, and a 4th Century depiction of three multiethnic Magi kneeling in homage before Jesus, found at the Church of the Nativity in Palestine, set their number at three. This number was likely associated with the three rich gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. By the 7th Century C.E. Swenson informs us that the three Magi received the names and identities by which we know them today; Melchior—an old and bearded man, Gaspar—a beardless and ruddy complexioned man, and Balthasar—a black-skinned and heavily bearded man. Swenson comments that these traditions regarding the Magi likely developed as a result of the lively commerce Europe enjoyed with the African rim nations of the East, as well as “to underscore Christianity’s world-wide ambitions.” Christian art from Medieval to modern times has continued to support the further indoctrination of these traditions concerning the Magi.
As we enter into another New Year, a year filled with possibility for those who, in the words of the prophet Joel, dare to see the visions and to dream the dreams, may we be both grounded and inspired by the faith-stories that form our Christian heritage and traditions. That was the case for Paul, who we learned in today’s New Testament lesson understood the prophetic messages and the coming of Christ Jesus as a light to the nations to affirm his ministry to the Gentiles. And just as our understanding and interpretations about the Magi have evolved and developed over time within the context of ongoing activities in the world around us, Swenson informs us that, “so too will what’s going on today affect how people find meaning in the Bible to make sense of their lives.” Among the gifts the story of the Magi’s visitation to the Christ-child has provided people of Christian faith down through the ages, perhaps this is the Magi’s best gift of all. A very blessed Happy New Year to you and all your loved ones. Amen—let it be so.