Matthew 2 1-12, Ephesians 3 1-12
I often think that the story of the arrival of the Magi is one that gives rise to more questions than it answers. For a start who exactly were these mysterious people who travelled so far in expectation of finding something amazing? What were their back stories? What had caused them to travel so far guided purely by the light of a single star? I also wonder what happened to them after their return home – wherever home actually was? How did the visit to an unknown baby boy affect the rest of their lives?
Unanswered questions and it could be argued that this story of the kings/wise men or whoever they were has been greatly romanticised over the centuries. The only Biblical mention of these strangers from afar is in today’s Gospel written by Matthew – none of the other three Gospel writers mention them and Matthew does not actually tell us how many there were, potentially the number three originates in the number of gifts that the visitors present the infant Jesus with. And then there’s the mystery of the gifts? What did Mary and Joseph do with them? Did they use them to financially support their hurried departure to Egypt when it became apparent that Herod was determined to kill their son? Or did they keep them safe “just in case” or simply as mementoes of his birth?
More unanswered questions! Matthew doesn’t describe the visitors as kings but rather as Magi which means. They were most likely to be astrologers, learned men or even magicians. He tells us that they have travelled from somewhere east of Judea and that they were attracted by the light of a new star. Given that they assumed this indicated the birth of a king it is unsurprising that they initially visited Jerusalem which was the acknowledged capital of Judea at that time. We also don’t know in what timescale the visit occurred. It’s highly unlikely that it was a mere 12 days after Jesus’s birth. Matthew’s account speaks of their arrival at a house, not a stable and thus another myth is destroyed since by then the shepherds would have been long gone, the angels would have vanished as mysteriously as they arrived and hopefully the little family were no longer sharing accommodation with a variety of farmyard animals! Thus the image of the nativity from the cosy scene depicted in so many crib scenes is deconstructed into a series of isolated incidents that do not necessarily bear any relationship to each other – but, of course, for one important factor – they are all connected with the birth of Christ and they all speak of the profound affect that event on those who witnessed it.
I wonder why, over the years, we have felt it necessary to sanitise what really happened? To create this illusion of the warm, cosy stable complete with lots of comfy hay, a conveniently crib shaped feeding trough, benign animals and a variety of happy, smiling visitors. If we are to adhere to scripture, this is not what is written, yet for the majority of people, the illusion is far more acceptable than the truth. Matthew’s account of Jesus’s birth was written to introduce the predominant theme of his Gospel – that of universal salvation, that God sent his Son for the sake of the whole world not just the Jewish people.
This message is echoed in our reading from Ephesians when Paul states that it is through God’s grace that he has been given the message of taking the good news of Christ to the Gentiles who are as much entitled to share in the promises of eternal life as are his fellow Jews. The Magi were Gentiles, yet they acknowledge Jesus as king bowing down before him, worshipping him without sincerity, honouring him through their presentation of those costly gifts. Why can these learned men from a completely different culture, unfamiliar with scripture, see what those who have soaked up the prophecies of their forefathers, can’t.
Or is it not so much that they can’t and more that they won’t ? Is Herod’s fear of this tiny baby based on his realisation that the prophecies quoted by the Pharisees have indeed come true. Could Herod actually the first person to know without doubt that Jesus is the Messiah, the long awaited king promised by God hence his fear and desperation to destroy what he believed to be a very real threat to his own tenuous rule?
If we were to read to the end of Matthew’s Gospel we would discover the commonality with its beginning. Just as the wise men from afar symbolise the first of the Gentiles to recognise the true status of the Christ Child, so Jesus’ last instruction to his disciples prior to his Ascension is ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. The appearance of the Magi in Matthew’s birth narrative represents a convergence of different cultures, perspectives, belief systems and faiths. Astrologers or diviners they may have been, but their arduous journey began because through their own traditions- perhaps we might call them superstitions – they recognised nevertheless that this tiny child had a truly special status and was going to be supremely important for the world.
And one of the important things that all the Gospel birth narratives tell us is that God excludes and denies nothing in order that Emmanuel- God with us- will become a reality, even resorting to the power of dreams to make his will happen. Dreams play an important role throughout scripture. There are five dreams in the story of Christ’s birth alone. As well as the four that involve Joseph, the one recounted in this passage is of course that experienced by Wise Men themselves, warning them of Herod’s treachery and advising them to return home by another route. One of the striking things about the visit of the Magi is that despite the fact that they know that this child is very special and will achieve something life changing for the world there is no actual personal declaration of faith, no repentance and acceptance as there is so often elsewhere in the Gospels as a result of people coming face to face with Jesus. The wise men simply present their gifts and then they disappear, never to be seen again. They tell Herod that they have come in search of He who is born King of the Jews, but although this is a title, a recognition of status, maybe even an acknowledgement of divinity, there is no suggestion of conversion or commitment. Just a burning desire to see for themselves what the star was leading them to.
Matthew’s Gospel seeks to evangelise those outside the accepted people of God at that time. In these opening chapters he describes what unites those caught up in his narrative rather than what divides them. It is a reminder of the benefits of being in fellowship. It’s about unity not uniformity; it is about discovering areas of common ground, and it’s about being prepared to be surprised at how the insights and ethics of those we might consider different to us can illuminate us. Something of all that may be going on in the story of the Epiphany which we celebrate today. The Magi perceive that something amazing is happening. They point the world’s attention to a tiny child whose love and power calls the human heart to break down the barriers that stop us living in the world as God created it to be – one of peace and justice, of love and kindness. And of course it is that same tribute to the power of inclusiveness communicated to Christ around his crib, that becomes the benchmark of Christ’s own ministry when he uses people’s differences, and occasionally their downright hostility to God, as a force for unity and a common recognition that despite everything, they were in the presence of a loving God who cared about them, no matter where they came from or how they were viewed by others around them. The Magi brought Jesus gifts of great earthly value. But they also brought him the most important gift of all – the gift of life for had they done as Herod had commanded them and brought Jesus to him, surely he would have perished. And what do we bring Jesus? At the very least we bring him our hearts, we bring him our hopes and fears for the future of this world in all its uncertainty. And we also bring him our love and desire to serve him. The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr describes the epiphany as this….
“An epiphany is an experience that transforms everything, and before you can do anything with it, it does something to you… it always seems to demand a change in people‘s lives. To live with a faith that makes room for Epiphany leaves us on our heels, ready to step out to wherever it is that God may be revealed” In this broken and divided world there is a real need to make it known that all are welcome around Christ’s crib, and that whatever the differences and disagreements we might have, we all have our part to play in making the power of God’s love known in the world, to bring light into the darkness and peace to all humanity.
Some of you may be familiar with the poem “The Gate of the Year” written at the beginning of the 20th Century by Minnie Haskins and I leave you with her words, a message of hope to take into this new year.
“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
Let us step out in faith, bravely into the unknown, just like those travellers from the East, and take the light of Jesus out into a world that surely needs it now more than ever.