St John’s, Decatur (Macon County Parish)
So … what’s up? Why are we here on a Thursday night? This isn’t usually a time for coming to church, so there must be something important to do. What’s on the agenda?
Good question. For one thing, at least, we’ve got a story—a story that is at the same time very familiar and very strange. Some mysterious figures that Matthew’s gospel calls Magi, from some mysterious location somewhere east of the Roman territory of Judea—which could potentially include an incredibly vast area—arrive in Jerusalem after following some mysterious star for some mysteriously unspecified length of time. (There’s a whole lot of mysteriousness going on here.) They ask around whether anybody knows where the baby boy is who was born “King of the Jews,” because they’ve been following the star in the expectation that it will lead them to that child. Well, this gets the attention of Herod, the Roman Empire’s puppet king of Judea, because he’s under the impression that he is the King of the Jews. So he tells the Magi, “Hey, when you find this kid, do me a favor and let me know, OK, ‘cause … I want to … you know … worship him too. Right? Uh, here’s my cell number. Call me any time.”
So the Magi say, “Sure. Will do, Your Majesty. Talk to you soon. Bye.” Only they end up not actually doing that, because an angel tells them not to. Anyway…they head on over to Bethlehem, which is really close, basically just a suburb of Jerusalem, and there they find Jesus, and they drop off some pretty impressive gifts, and then they’re mysteriously back on their way to the mysterious place that they came from and nobody hears a peep from them ever again. Very mysterious.
Now I guess it’s my job to say something about what this all means. Lucky me! Matthew starts with the Magi, but I want to start with the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Other than that they’re in Bethlehem, we don’t know precisely where they are. In our collective popular imagination, we’ve run Luke’s story about the shepherds and the angels and the manger together with Matthew’s story about the Magi, and put everybody into the same crèche scene. It could be that the Magi showed up some time later and by then some of the local hotel rooms had cleared out and nobody was sleeping in a barn anymore who didn’t properly live there. We don’t know. But it doesn’t really matter; that’s one mystery we don’t have to solve. There they are, the three of them, a family: the man who laid his male ego aside and agreed to raise as his own a child whom he did not father, the young woman who put her reputation and her whole future at risk when she accepted the vocation of being the God-bearer, and the infant who was himself the creator of the universe, “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing,” as we sang twelve nights ago. Joseph and Mary had made gifts of themselves to Jesus, gifts of their own lives, and the infant Jesus was himself God’s gift of his own life to and for the world. Yes, there’s some mysteriousness here, but also a lot of clarity. Some astonishing emerging clarity.
Now let’s look at the Magi. That word—magi—is just a straight letter-for-letter transliteration of the Greek word Matthew uses. It’s the same root from which we get “magic,” so some have called these mysterious figures magicians, and some have called them astrologers. Most of our English translations of the Bible use the expression “Wise Men.” And there is a strand of Christian tradition that calls them Kings, as in “we three kings.” Ah … that raises the question of how many there were. We tend to assume there were three, because we’re told about three different gifts that they brought, but we really don’t know. There could have been two, or 23, or 87, or whatever. What we do know is that they were foreigners. They weren’t from around there. The spoke with an accent. To put a finer point on it, they were Gentiles—non-Jews in a very Jewish land. This may not strike us as particularly remarkable because…hey…most of us are Gentiles ourselves. But to Matthew’s original Jewish readers, it was a bombshell. Jews at that time tended to have a pretty possessive attitude toward “their” God and their covenant with that God. They were the special chosen people, and every other nation was second or third class in comparison. So, for the infant Son of God to receive worship and gifts from these unclean Gentiles was no small scandal in a Jewish mind. The implications were dangerous. The implications were that God loves and is interested in all people everywhere, equally and without ethnic distinction. Because the Wise Men were Gentiles, the gospel is universal. The salvation of God can include you and me, even if we were not born children of Abraham by blood. This is really big. Again, there’s still enough mystery here to go around, but things are also getting ever clearer. God is acting. God is acting through his chosen people, the Jews, in order to save all people.
Finally, let’s look at the gifts the Wise Men brought—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The ancient antiphon for Evensong on this feast day explains the meaning of these gifts quite well: “From the east there came wise men to Bethlehem to worship the Lord; and when they had opened their treasures, they presented to him precious gifts: gold as to a mighty King, incense as to the true God, and myrrh to foreshadow his burial.” Gold because the infant Jesus was a king, incense because the infant Jesus was God, and myrrh because the whole point of his life would not be understood apart from his laying it down in death. Mysterious still? Yes. But the clarity is continuing to emerge. The veil is being removed. Something marvelous is being revealed.
What does it all mean? The feast of the Epiphany—the word “epiphany” means “showing forth” or “manifestation”—the feast of the Epiphany means that we have access to God. Jews still have access to God, and Gentiles now have access to God. God has revealed himself. We can never know all there is of God, but what we need to know, God has told us. He has spoken his “word” to us through that “Word” becoming flesh, becoming one of us. In writing to the Ephesians, St Paul declares that his own purpose is “…to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for long ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known …”.
Yes, there is a great deal of mystery surrounding the Epiphany. The circumstances of the Holy Family are mysterious, the Magi are mysterious figures, their gifts are cryptic symbols. But at its heart, the Epiphany does exactly what the word means—it reveals, it shows forth, it manifests, it takes that which was hidden for long ages and makes it known, makes it accessible, makes God accessible. Even in his newborn vulnerability, Jesus was the human face of God, and the Wise Men were wise indeed in their recognition of the fact, in the worship they offered, and in the gifts they left behind. Our opportunity now is to emulate them, to emulate Mary and Joseph in offering our whole lives, beginning tonight at this eucharistic altar, offering our whole lives to the one whom we know to be the dear desire of every nation and the joy of every loving heart. Amen.