Revd Sara’s Reflection for the Epiphany of the Lord
On January 6th much of the Christian church will celebrate Epiphany (“manifestation,”) which commemorates when the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus is made known to the whole world. A traditional reading for Epiphany is Matthew 2:1-12, the story of the magi, the first gentiles to receive this divine revelation.
Who were these wise travellers from the east? Why did they brave this long and perilous journey? Did they find what they were seeking? What gifts did they bring?
Some Bible translations call them “wise men.” Others call them astrologers, kings, or magi. Which is it? The Greek word here is “magoi,” which means neither “wise men” nor “kings.” Magi were highly educated and knowledgeable in astrology, astronomy, history, philosophy, medicine and mathematics.
They would interpret dreams, foretell the future, and read the stars and how they affect human events. Some were magicians, mediators between humans and the higher powers and would attempt to use their own rituals and methods to manipulate events.
The magi in the gospel story are indeed wise, for they recognize the star and walk in its light. When at last they see the child with his mother, they overflow with joy! Then they don’t just kneel, they fall in worship, lay down their former beliefs and practices and turn their hearts and hopes over to him. Then, opening up their treasure chests, they offer their most precious gifts.
Imagine giving any of these treasures away to someone! It would have to be someone very special. Someone you loved so much that you just had to share something of yourself, your most cherished treasure with them. That’s what the magi do.
Matthew mentions only three gold, frankincense and myrrh, which in the ancient world were standard gifts to honour a king or a deity.
Gold is a highly precious metal which only the very wealthy can give as a gift. Frankincense is a perfume used in offerings, including at the Jerusalem Temple (Ex 30:9, 34-38). Myrrh provides an oil for anointing and embalming of the dead.
They point to the Christ child as king and as divine, and to his death, and echo the prophet Isaiah (60:1-6), who envisions nations and royals and all sorts of people coming from afar to God’s light, bringing their abundance and their gold and frankincense and praising God.
Why do these rich and influential sorcerers and sages leave the comfort and prestige and power of their world, and risk the discomfort and dangers of a weeks-or-months-long journey to what could have been a hostile and unwelcoming place? Why do they give up so much, make themselves so vulnerable, and feel such exuberant joy when they find this child?
It’s extraordinary! And I feel like there’s something Matthew isn’t telling us. I find it hard to believe that their only gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Although generous, I would call these “outward gifts.”
The whole story points to a profusion of “inward gifts.” Inward gifts are unseen to the human eye, but not to God, who sees the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Actually, inward gifts are visible when we put them into action. In forgiveness and mercy. In advocacy for justice. In peacemaking, kindness and acts of service. In gratitude. In all the big and little ways we share faith and hope and love. The prophets and psalmists teach us that it’s these inward gifts that matter most to God. (See Hosea 6:6, Psalm 51:16-17, Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:6-8). As I read between the lines of this story, I see more. I imagine that at least some of them brought simple gifts. Gifts of the heart.
May we be open to sharing our gifts of the heart
Happy New Year love and prayers Revd Sara