The coming of the Magi from the East spurs the imagination but also draws us into hard realities. The focus of attention and query often gets placed in the star: What was it? Where did come from? How did they know to follow it? Or, their “Eastern-ness”: Are they from Persia? Arabia? India? China? Their role: King? Wise Man? Sage? Magician? Astrologer? And their gifts: We know what gold is, but what is frankincense and myrrh? These are all interesting questions, but ultimately not Matthew’s point in telling this story.
Matthew 2:1-12 should be read within the context of the wider narrative of Matthew chapters 1-2. In this bigger story Matthew is telling about Jesus’ origins, several things come to light:
- Matthew tells Jesus’ lineage to connect him to the wider story of Israel in the Bible (Matthew 1:1-17). It is important to read through this list of names – it connects him to both Abraham and David, but also to Tamar, Ruth and Rahab.
- Joseph is reluctant to go through with the wedding with Mary since she is already pregnant (Matthew 1:18-19). It takes an angel within a dream (remember Joseph and his dreams from Genesis?) to open him to the idea that the child who will be born will “save the people form their sins” (Matthew 1:22), looking back not just to individual misdeeds, but the national wandering from God what led to centuries of exile and foreign occupation. Joseph does marry her, and is present for the rest of Matthew’s infancy narrative.
- The Magi are foreigners. We know nothing about them other than this short story. We do not know their names (Tradition gives them the names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazaar); how they dressed (a legend tells of Persian invaders in 614 sparing the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem from destruction because of the art portraying the Wise Men were wearing Persian garb, so they left the building alone); or where they came from when they saw the star. Most of the things we think we know about them (including the camel in many of our Nativity sets inferred from Isaiah 60:6, or that there are three wise men) is added conjecture.
- King Herod is the power-center of the story. He is threatened by the presence of the Magi and what they represent: a rival who has come to usurp him. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are gifts to give a royal. Herod’s family made a deal with the Romans securing his power. One could see his rule as illegitimate. A child king and potential Messiah was a huge threat. After the Magi went home, Herod sent his henchman to eliminate that threat by slaughtering all the children in the area.
- Mary and Joseph (along with the child Jesus) escape to Egypt. Egypt was the place of slavery from which the Exodus narrative – the centering story in the Hebrew Bible is set. When Jesus returns to the Holy Land, it signals (from Matthew’s storytelling) a new Exodus is about to take place, and Jesus (like a new Moses) has arrived to lead the people from slavery to freedom. Matthew was most likely writing his gospel to a Jewish-Christian audience who would have understood the parallels.
What might we make of the Wise Men in a North American 21st century context?
- People are still seeking. In our information heavy, technology-driven, digital age we are inundated by easy answers and often neglect challenging questions. Now is a time to reclaim not only what draws us to the Christ, but what also may be motivating others to seek meaning and purpose in their lives. Many people seem stuck longing, seeking, wondering and hurting. What signs can you point to (and what might others be grasping for) that could draw people together rather than wedge them apart? Is there something in the Jesus story that might speak? Listen? Include? Epiphany means “aha!” Seek the “aha” moment with those around you.
- God often uses the outsider to proclaim good news. If the church is to have any future, it is essential that the faith communities many of us have both come from and inherited learn this essential truth: God is neither irrelevant or in decline. But our systems and institutions are. To “tune-in” to where God is leading anew we need to “tune-in” to our neighbors outside of what we may think is normative.
- Power does what power does. We should not be surprised or disappointed by this reality or naïve enough to overlook it. Power will often do what it needs to do to maintain its position – often at any cost – unless it is shown that it is in its own self-interest not to do so. History shows that the church (whoever is governing society) often does its best work when it is centered in a message of peace, hope and love (not force, power and control); acts as a voice of the voiceless, and cares for those in need and on the margins. We should expect pushback when we will not be dismissed, coerced or pushed-around or allow it to happen to others. There is a deeper and truer power at work among us than worldly influence rooted in joy, compassion and generosity. Look for it – and join in.
Blessings to you this Epiphany.