Who Is This Man (Week 2): The Gift of the Magi


This Sunday is Epiphany, the official end of the 12 Days of Christmas, and the day before the NCAA football national championship game, and thus the end of the college football bowl season---which in our culture officially ends the holiday season.

Heck, Walgreens is already putting out their Valentine's Day cards, so who am I kidding, right?

Still, in some cultures Epiphany is a bigger deal than Christmas.  And in these cultures the rituals of gift giving are tied to wise men instead of a jolly old elf.  I have to admit, this isn't such a bad idea.

In many Latin American cultures the day is commonly known as Tres Reyes (Three Kings), and is celebrated by children filling their shoes with hay and then leaving them  by their bedroom doors the night before Epiphany in anticipation of receiving gifts on the morning of January 6th.  They hay is for the camels of the legendary Three Kings, of course.

In England the night before Epiphany was called Twelfth Night when the coal from the yule log that was kept burning throughout Christmas was saved and kept to light the yule log for the next year.  Epiphany is still a day of revelry in England almost like April Fool's Day is in our culture.

In all of these ancient celebrations, the magi, as the wise men who followed the star to the Christ child are often called, appear days after Christmas.  But in our culture, we display Nativity scenes that include the magi, and we always make sure that they make their entrance in our Christmas pageants, trotting them in right after the shepherds.  But according to Scripture and Church tradition--we're committing a faux pas of sorts when we do this.

So what we are going to do this week is rescue the magi from the Christmas pageant, and give them their own audience with Jesus apart from the shepherds who came on that first night.

The word "epiphany" means "manifestation" or "striking appearance."  But over time the day of Epiphany, has taken on a "once upon a time" feel to it.  What happened to these "wise men" doesn't really happen in the "real" world, does it? I mean, who sees a star in the sky and travels for weeks to find a king in our day and age?

So that's my question, and it's a big one.  Are these "once upon a time" moments?  Or do these kinds of epiphanies---moments where people miraculously experience Christ---still happen?

Let's read the story of the Magi for ourselves to see what we can see...

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Before we dig into the Scripture, let's uncover some of the ancient traitions surrounding the magi---this is important because some of these traditions have made their way into our cultural imagination, but have no basis in Scripture whatsoever.

In the early 6th century a church historian by the name of Bede did two things that have affected our understanding of the story of the wise men ever since:  He wrote that there were only three of them, and he gave them names.  Melchior was the oldest of the magi, according to Bede, and had a long white beard and white hair.  Gapsar was the youngest, and was beardless with a ruddy complexion.  Balthasar, Bede indicated, was dark skinned with a long beard.

The diversity in the magi has been interpreted as a move by Bede to demonstrate the diversity of Christianity in the world at the time.

The gifts brought by the magi were thought to be highly symbolic.  Gold was a gift given to acknowledge the kingship of Christ, frankincense was given to acknowledge Christ's divinity and myrrh was given to symbolize Christ's ultimate sacrifice.

All of these traditions of the early Church reflected the anticipation of Gentile Christians as Christianity expanded around the world from it's early Jewish roots.  And the magi were a huge part of this.  The book of Matthew essentially ends where it begins with people recognizing Christ as the divine Lord & Savior, and then being sent out into the world to share the good news.  Additionally, the Early Church scholars and leaders made it perfectly clear that there is no way that any gifts human being might bring could possibly match the gift of Christ himself.

So that's what history and tradition have to teach us... What about Scripture?  What can we learn from the text?

First of all, Matthew does not number the magi.  The assumption that there were three comes from the number of gifts mentioned, but there were undoubtedly quite a few people in the caravan that arrived in Bethlehem.  The caravan would have been large and well provisioned, having travelled hundreds of miles for several weeks.

The word "magi" comes "magician" or astrologer, which these wise men almost assuredly were.  They studied the heavens from Babylon, which was the seat of astronomical study during the first century.  When they arrive in Judea, which is where they believe the star they saw is leading them, the wise men obey the etiquette of the day and pay homage to Herod, who was king of Judea at the time.  Herod takes these guys seriously enough that he calls in his own religious scholars (the Scripture claims they were from the Sanhedrin, the religious ruling order that would one day accuse and condemn Jesus) to verify what they are telling him.

We also read that the magi saw the star from their homeland, then did not see it again until they arrived in Bethlehem---which sort of messes up our ideas of them "following" the star to their destination.  Additionally, the gifts that they gave were standard gifts that were given on royal visits in ancient Middle Eastern culture, which dispels the notion that they were somehow symbolic.

But clearly something amazing happened in the life of these magi because they end up being warned in a dream that they are not to return to Herod with details on the king they have found because he is up to no good.

So what does all of this mean?  And what can we learn from this unusual story?

The bottom line is this:  In the end, no matter where you come from or what your background is--your search for truth, meaning and ultimate purpose begins and ends with Jesus.

The magi are seekers, who begin in an unlikely way, but find the truth that transcends all others.  They are Gentiles and from Babylon, no less.  Their journey begins with curiosity and a deep desire to know the truth of the cosmos. God uses their circumstances, their beliefs and their desire to lead them ultimately to Jesus.

Their story should be an inspiration for those of us who are numbered among the "churched" or "committed" Christians.  I read this week that "not every committed Christian has a taste for actually kneeling in the muck of a barn in a backwater town with astonished recognition that this is where God prefers to make an entrance."

Church-y people tend to prefer comfort.  They often live under the mistaken notion that privilege, power, tradition and safety are a Christian's true calling.  They also don't really like it all that much when the "wrong" people find their way into the Church and to faith in Christ.

The story of the magi helps us to see that everyone is invited to the celebration, even those who have been travelling a radically different paths on their search for a true home.

St. Augustine once wrote, "Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee...O Lord."   This includes even the "wrong" people, which I tend to see as some freakishly awesome good news, because I happen to know that I have been  numbered among the "wrong" in more than a few church-y settings.

I read the story of Kamal Saleem, a radical Islamist from Lebanon, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a would-be terrorist and potential martyr.  He came to America for an education and to determine how he might be able to one day enact acts of terror against the West.  Instead he began to hear the voice of God speaking to him, audibly.

That's right.  I said "audibly."  Epiphany happens, people.  And what God was saying to Saleem was that he was claimed by God, and that Jesus desired that Saleem follow him and devote the same zeal he had formerly afforded to Islam to Christianity.  So he did.

Sally Read was a famous poet from England, who was also an avowed atheist.  Responding to an almost physical pull to attend church, she had an emotional and dramatic spiritual experience that bordered on a mystical vision.  She became a Christian and now devotes her poetic gifts to glorifying the God she used to deny.

These stories resonate with me because I have known what it's like to be called out by a God I was essentially denying.

My life in church-y world has been interesting.  I have been written off by former friends, teachers, and fellow church members more than once.  I have been told that my heart was too hard, my rebellion against God too great and my sins too many to number for me to truly be welcomed into the arms of Christ.

My journey has taken me too some pretty dark and mucky places, so I understand completely how it is that God sometimes uses the most unlikely people and circumstances to prove the truth that the magi embodied.

And, yes... I have heard the voice of God speak to me on more than one occasion. Once through a short female priest in the Church of England, who preached a sermon to me as I sat in a crowd of hundreds in St. Paul's Cathedral, London.  Countless times in my head with overwhelming desires, words that I cannot shake, poems that I remember, songs that come to mind and so many ways that defy my own reason.

These moments of epiphany have rocked me to my core and brought me to my knees---on ancient stones, in the dust of Tijuana Mexico and even in the dark sanctuary of my own church in the middle of the night on a Saturday.

Let me ask you a question.

What's your story on how you got here?  If you are sitting in church or reading this blog---what's your story?  How did you get to this moment?    I bet your journey has been one of a few twists and turns.  I bet there are people who would consider you one of the "wrong" ones.

What sort of ending would you like to see written?  Would you prefer one that ends with you returning to the status quo, living your life just as you always have... or would you prefer one that ends with you living as if you've knelt in the presence of Christ?

It's your choice, really.  You can continue living toward power and privilege.  You can decide that Christianity is really all about your traditions and your comfort.  Or you can let your encounter with Jesus fill you with a desire to tell the world how you've been changed, transformed and made new.

That old church sign aphorism really is true, my friend:  Wise men still seek him.

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