Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12
There is much to unpack in this familiar passage of the Holy Family and the Magi.
Let’s begin with the three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the ancient world, you did not appear before a king without a gift, and the best gift for a king was gold. The frankincense was the gift for a priest. Frankincense is from the sap of the Boswellia tree. It was burned at the temple in Jerusalem. In the ancient world, in smoke ascending, the connection between this world and the next, and between humankind and God, was strengthened. The third gift was the most interesting, myrrh. Myrrh is a yellow fragrant, sap-like resin from the Commiphora tree. It is still used to reduce pain and kill bacteria. It is interesting that most theological commentaries connect it to the burial rite, neglecting its use for healing. I prefer to think of myrrh as the gift for a healer. Of these three gifts scholars speculate that gold was the least expensive.
Now let’s turn to the Magi, as the Greek text calls the visitors, rather than kings. Magi were the Holy Men of Persia, the region of Iraq and Iran. Magi dedicated their lives to prayer and study, especially the study of the night sky as they sought to discern god’s order for life. When there were dramatic events in the heavens, the Magi sought to discern their significance and connection to life on earth. While the Biblical text is clear about the three gifts, it is unclear about how many Magi travelled to Bethlehem. An early commentary speculated that there were a dozen, perhaps corresponding to the twelve apostles.
The third point of unpacking the text is the response to that first Epiphany.
King Herod the Great reigned from 47 B.C.E. until 4 B.C.E. He kept the peace and brought order to that still-troubled land. He was a builder, rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. During times of famine, he melted down his own gold to purchase corn for the poor. In spite of the good, he was deeply suspicious and had his wife, her mother, and three of his sons murdered. The report of his murdering all the young boys around Bethlehem following the fleeing Holy Family’s escape fits. King Herod the Great’s response to the birth of the Christ-child is still the response of those who find the message of Jesus a threat to their power, and their ambitions.
The second group noted in the text is “the chief priests and scribes of the people” of Israel. They were summoned to the palace to inform King Herod and to determine where the Christ-child was to be born. They correctly determined the location from Micah 5:2, “in the city of David, Bethlehem of Judea”. And then there is nothing! The religious leaders shared the information, and then they disappeared. They showed no interest at all. I find that rather odd. Perhaps they valued their positions and the status quo too much. They were indifferent, wrapped up in their own world, rather than inspired to seek the light of God to come into the world.
And finally, we have those foreigners, those Holy Men from afar who continued to search, who continued to seek the newborn king. Upon finding him in a small obscure town, at home with his peasant mother, Mary:
“they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy…” “they fell down and worshiped Him”… “they opened their treasures, and [they] offered to Him gifts…”
The ruling monarch and government of his native land wanted to murder him.
The religious establishment of his native land ignored him.
The strange Holy Men from afar sought him, worshiped him and gifted him.
Following their visit, being warned in a dream according to the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the Holy Family fled for their lives to Egypt (3:13-14).
This is a jammed-packed passage of twelve verses. The locals, perhaps blinded by their own importance and power, blinded by their own vested interests, missed the Light coming into the world. Those from afar discerned the star at its rising, travelled a great distance, and offered gifts appropriate to a king, a priest and a healer. Discovering him, they fell on their knees and worshiped him.
I trust that we would be found among the Magi, seeking to follow the star to the place where the Christ-child was; that we, too, would offer our gifts, however, modest they may be; and that we, too, would fall on our knees and worship. Then, we, too, like those first Magi, would be enriched and transformed by God’s love to continue our life’s journey differently, as they travelled home by a different route.