Text: Matthew 2:1-12
The story of the Magi, or the Three Kings as many of us refer to them, is a familiar and important part of the central story of the Christian faith—the birth of Christ—and has been given a significant amount of theological study. And so it seems worth taking a few minutes on this Epiphany Sunday to understand what we think we know about the Magi, and to contemplate what message their story might have for us today.
Harvard scholar, Brent Landau is the author of a new book that attracted quite a bit of attention this past Christmas. The book, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem, is the first-ever English translation of an ancient manuscript that tells the famous story from the Magi’s perspective. He shares five things from the ancient manuscript that challenge how we have told and heard the story of the Magi.
First, he notes, the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say how many Magi there were. Three became the most popular answer because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But some paintings in Christian catacombs have two or four, the Revelation of the Magi has a list of twelve Magi with names, and other Christian writings imagine an entire army of Magi! Second, early Christians didn’t agree on where the Magi were from. The most popular answer was Persia (modern Iran), but others thought they were from Babylon or Arabia. In the ancient manuscript, Revelation of the Magi, they come from a land called Shir; which, because it is located at the eastern edge of the inhabited world, is probably equivalent to China. Third, nobody knows what the Star of Bethlehem really was. Some early Christians thought it was an angel or the Holy Spirit, and more recent theories include a comet or a supernova. In the Revelation of the Magi, the star is none other than Christ himself in celestial form. Fourth, opinions differ about how long it took the Magi to reach Bethlehem. Based on Herod’s asking of the Magi when the star appeared, coupled with his subsequent command to kill all male infants under the age of two, many Christians thought it took them two years. Some imagined a much faster journey of twelve days, based on the “twelve days of Christmas” between December 25th and the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th. Their journey is even faster in the Revelation of the Magi – that text says that the star “carries” the Magi to Bethlehem in the blink of an eye. And fifth, a number of answers were proposed for how the Magi knew that a star signified the birth of the King of the Jews. Many Christians thought that they knew the prophecy of Balaam, a prophet who predicts in Numbers 24:17 that “a star shall come out of Jacob.” In the ancient manuscript Revelation of the Magi, the Magi are descendants of Seth, who learned about the prophecy of the star from his father Adam—since a star stood over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
In Christian tradition, the Magi, also referred to as the three wise men, three Kings, or Kings from the East, are a group of distinguished foreigners who are said to have visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity and in celebrations of Christmas, often the most interesting of the figurines in our nativity scenes.
The Gospel of Matthew, which is the only one of the four gospels to mention the Magi, states that they came “from the east” to worship the Christ, “born King of the Jews.” Although Matthew’s account does not tell how many they were, the three gifts led to a widespread assumption that they were three. Traditions identify a variety of different names for the Magi. In the Western Christian church they have been commonly known as Melchior, Casper, and Balthasar. The three gifts identified in Matthew of gold, frankincense, and myrrh have been assigned different meanings throughout Christian writings. Generally, the theories break down into two groups. The first theory is that all three gifts are ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king: myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable. The second theory assigns spiritual meaning to the gifts: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of priesthood, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death.
Given that Matthew is the only gospel that includes the story of the visit of the magi, I asked the lectionary group why they thought Matthew decided to include it in his gospel. What made this particular story stand out to Matthew? The obvious answer that surfaced was to fulfill the prophesies of the Hebrew Scriptures. And, indeed, aspects of the story do relate to prophesies in both Isaiah and Micah. Throughout the book of Matthew the connection between the faith of the early prophets (8th century BC) and that of the modern day prophets (1st century CE) was deliberate and careful. In other words, Matthew wanted to show that the Jesus story was intimately and integrally related to Israel’s history.
So Matthew includes this story as a way to validate Jesus as the fulfillment of the scripture, but he goes much further. This isn’t a line or two that quotes the prophets.; this is the story of a powerful ruler who becomes obsessed with the birth of a child who is rumored to possess authority that would super cede his own. Here we have the birth of a helpless infant and yet, the powers that be are so deeply threatened that they ultimately call for infanticide. The story of Herod is proof that from the very beginning, Christ challenges power, and power responds with fear, with aggression, and with violence. If we ask ourselves why Matthew believed this story needed to be told, I believe it is because Matthew knew all that this baby represented – justice, truth, freedom, love, inclusivity—all the things that lift up the lowly and the vulnerable and the weak –threatened those in power, those who would go to any length to perpetuate their own power over others, their own wealth, their own possessions, their own privilege. Herod represents the powers and principalities of this world that promote a world of haves and have-nots. Matthew, I believe, included this story to remind us that we must always pay attention the people and institutions and societal norms that threaten God’s justice being born in our world. Traditionally, in retelling this story, we have focused on the three gifts we are told that the magi present to the Christ-child. In many a church Christmas plays we have watched children dressed in bath robes and Burger King crowns present blinged out boxes containing the imaginary gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the babe lying in the manger. Thinking about this scene, I started wondering this week what gifts we would pull out of our treasure chests to present to the Christ-child. Notice that the text doesn’t say that the magi went out to Target or Wal-Mart to buy gifts for the babe. It says, “opening their treasure chests, they offered their gifts.” They reached deep into what they already possessed and offered their best gifts.
I asked the lectionary group what gifts they thought we, Pullen Church, possessed in our treasure chest to offer the Christ-child. Without hesitation they agreed that the people of Pullen are our most treasured gifts and the best gift that we have to offer. Someone said, “We have a whole lot of great people at this church—people who write prophetic letters to the paper; people who stand for justice in our community every single day; people who give their time and energy to make our community and our world a better place for all people.” Another person said our treasured gift is the way we bring together this crazy, intelligent, passionate, compassionate, and devoted group of people who care about justice and love—who take action for justice. It is true. The way you offer yourselves to the work of God’s justice in this world is the greatest gift we have to offer. Our treasure chest is overflowing with an abundance of faithful and compassionate people. And from you flows the other gifts in our treasure chest—the backdoor ministry; the Hope Center; the Wiley-Pullen tutoring program; the vision of God’s radically, inclusive love that welcomes all people. Now, when I think of this story, I will think of Pullen people as the gold we offer; our prophetic voice as the frankincense; and our willingness to try and live out God’s radically, inclusive love as our myrrh.
Before we ended our lectionary lunch, one participant, almost as an afterthought, suggested that there was actually a fourth gift that the magi offered to the Christ-child—a gift that rarely gets named as a gift. The story tells us that after having presented their gifts, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. And listening to their dream, the text says, “they left for their own country by another road.” Some translations say, “they returned home by another road.” What a risk it must have been for the magi to take an action that so clearly subverted the powers that controlled the kingdom in which they lived. What a risk it must have been to choose to act by a different set of principles and values than what was expected. What a risk it must have been to travel the unfamiliar road. But what a gift it was to the Christ-child.
The fourth gift was the gift of not going back to Herod. The fourth gift of the magi was having the courage to listen to their hearts, their institutions, and make a different decision; to try another way, to not just do what was expected or stay with the familiar. This story of the magi is about staying open, individually and collectively, to the thing that will require us to go home by another way. It is about staying open to that place and time that inevitably comes in our lives when we are called to try another way, to do the unexpected, to risk the unfamiliar—to follow a different path for the Christ-child. This is the fourth-and possibly the most significant gift-of the magi. May we be blessed this year, as a church, with the willingness and courage to offer this fourth gift to the Christ-child.