January 1, 2023
This coming Friday is Epiphany, which celebrates the coming of the Magi, or Wise Men. It was a much later tradition that had them as kings. We usually put them together at the manger with the shepherds, but that’s not really how it is in the bible. Only Luke tells of the manger. Matthew indicates Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem and the Magi come to their home. It happens -perhaps as much as two years after Jesus’ birth, since that’s how far back Herod goes in his attempt to kill this baby. Tradition simply merges Luke’s and Matthew’s two stories to make the traditional Christmas pageant.
In the part of the story the lectionary leaves out to today and includes on Epiphany this Friday, we are told these foreigners form the east brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Traditionally we have assumed there were three men because there are three gifts, but Matthew doesn’t actually say how many men there were. Much later on in tradition they were even given names.
We must remember that Matthew and Luke were not trying to give us an objective historical picture of Jesus’ birth but a theological understanding of Jesus’ birth. Matthew sees parallels and connections to the Old Testament. For instance, Joseph has profound and important dreams, just like his name’s sake in the Old Testament. And, like the Joseph of old, he brings Jesus and Mary to Egypt just as that Joseph brought the rest of his tribal family there. And then Joseph brings Mary and Jesus out of Egypt just as Moses, the first great prophet, brought the People of Israel out of Egypt. These are not coincidences in Matthew, they are part of the connections he makes that say something about who Jesus is.. Jesus has these similarities to the great Hebrew icons of the past. Likewise, Herod the Great ordering the killing babies, like the Pharaoh did at the time of Moses, seems to reinforce the connection to Moses. It must be noted, there is no other historical record of Herod’s doing this but most scholars concede it could have happened. Herod was ruthless in protecting his power and killed several members of his own family when he thought they might be conspiring to gain power.
The Magi themselves make a statement by their presence. They signify that Jesus is recognized, even by non-Jews, at least those who discern the mysteries of the heavens, as a special gift from God. This is a messiah who comes to the world
Even the gifts the Magi bring for Jesus are to serve a purpose in his story. They are certainly not practical gifts for a newborn -or a two year old, unless you assume Mary and Joseph used them to finance their trip to Egypt or gave them to Jesus to finance the beginning of his ministry. But, there is no indication of that in Matthew, or elsewhere.
The Gold is a gift for a king, reinforcing the idea that Jesus is born a king. Frankincense was a fragrance used by a priest at the temple altar. Jesus becomes the High Priest who reconciles us with God. And of course, Myrrh was used to embalm the dead and this child was destined to end his life on the cross. It all tells us something about who Jesus was. Matthew’s main interest is to paint a picture of who Jesus is and what his life means from beginning to end.
The real question for us today though, is not what did Matthew think of Jesus’ birth and life, but what do we think? What meaning, what significance does Jesus have for us. Or perhaps, like the Christmas carol, “What Can I give him?” the Magi story stirs us to devotional wonder. How do we respond to this story of God’s love come to us? -What can we give in return? The answer is, of course, only ourselves. All we can do, and all God wants, is what we are. Matthew says the Magi came to the house where Jesus was, entered, saw Mary and Jesus, knelt in adoration, and presented him with their gifts. They recognized that God had gifted the world with this baby and their response was to give what they had in devotion as their response.
Today we come to the communion table in recognition of the gift God has given. Jesus has come offering us himself, as an expression of God’s love and forgiveness. What will you give in response? How can you say thanks to God in this year ahead?
Perhaps you can give a gift of hope even when the world seems hopeless. Perhaps you can give a gift of striving for love and justice, -even when it seems there is nothing you can do that really makes a difference. Perhaps you can give a gift of caring, even when caring seems out of fashion.
We bring our gifts to the manger today, in who we are and how we live. God accepts us as we are and offers us the gift of himself. –This is my body. This is my blood – this is my Spirit and my Presence, My Grace and my Forgiveness. In devotion and thankfulness come to the table, receive what Christ has given. Christ’ presence is here. Let your own devotion be your gift.