Genesis 1: 1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19: 1-7; Mark 1: 4-11
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
About a month ago I was visiting a parishioner at a hospital and in the hospital lobby there was a nativity scene, complete with near-life size statues of Mary, Joseph, a few cows, a donkey, three magi, and an empty manger with no Christ child. This was before Christmas Day, mind you, and although I am the farthest from a liturgical snob, I was actually surprised to see how seemingly inaccurate this nativity scene was.
What was wrong with it? The manger was empty, there was no child, but there were three magi, or wise men, already there, waiting for the child to be born. That might not sound like much of a big deal to you, but it was to me because of how far a departure it this nativity scene was from the only Gospel Gospel account of it, which comes from Matthew. Matthew is the only Gospel that even mentions magi. In that Gospel, the magi come from the east after seeing a star in the sky. While Matthew’s Gospel is short on detail, the Gospel does clearly say that the magi arrived after the birth of Jesus, not before, so the Catholic Hospital with the nativity scene in it’s lobby got it wrong!
I mention this because it seems every year after Christmas, we just glide right past the visiting magi, with barely a mention, and if we do mention them we probably are light on the details. Today, thirteen days after Christmas, the focus is not on the visitation of the magi, but on Christ’s baptism in Jordan river as an adult. Obviously, Jesus’ baptism is important, especially on a day like today where we are baptizing children at this font. Jesus’ baptism is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all four Gospels – so I get how important it is. The visit of the magi who bring gifts to the infant in the manger? That’s only mentioned in one Gospel – Matthew.
So today I want to give a shout out to those three mysterious visitors who brought gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh to the Christ child. Because their day was yesterday, and while we had a Feast of Lights service to mark that moment, we didn’t have a sermon at that service so I thought to myself “I’ll do it on Sunday, even though the Gospel is all about Christ’s baptism as an adult, I want to back up the timeline to the visit of the magi when Christ was an infant.” [PAUSE].
On Christmas Day last year, my sister lent me a book entitled “Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem” by Brent Landau. It’s a short book that I found very accessible, and I enjoyed reading the book so much, that I packed it on a ski trip last week and actually took it skiing with me one day in my backpack so that I could finish it by a fire while eating lunch. Reading by a fire – that’s the best.
Here is the brief premise of the book: Not much is said about the magi (or wisemen) in Matthew’s Gospel. Consequently, the author endeavors find any extra material describing the magi, and comes across an ancient document written in Syriac, which is a language that emerged from Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. This document, gives additional information about the wise men, and tells the story of their visit to the Christ child from their perspective. It was written two to three centuries after the birth of Jesus, and Brent Landau translates it from Syriac to English. It’s a marvelous story, and while I don’t follow a literal interpretation of the magi’s visit as described in this recently translated manuscript, it nevertheless offers some excellent context that helped me to more fully appreciate who these mysterious visitors were to Bethlehem. Most surprising, and inspiring, to me was how theologically progressive this ancient manuscript is in terms of its openness and inclusion of others of other faith traditions.
Were the magi astrologers or Zoroastrian priests, or rulers from the east? We don’t really know, and that is part of their allure. But they were clearly different and unique, and it is not accidental in Matthew’s Gospel that they were the first to observe the star, and travel to meet the newborn messiah. The gifts they brought all had symbolic meaning: gold as symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an oil used for embalming corpses at that time) was an obvious and intentional foreshadowing of Christ’s death.
As mysterious as they remain, the stories told about these visitors from the east continue to have meaning for us as we begin a new season, called Epiphany, where we remember that Christ, symbolically through the magi’s visit, appeared before all people, regardless of skin color, religion, gender, or creed.
That is why the magi matter. In the centuries since their visit to the Christ child, Christianity has only become more divisive and argumentative. The magi sought not to argue, but to wonder. They did not seek to explain the marvelous mystery of a holy child that was divine, instead they brought gifts.
The example of the magi, their desire to look outside of themselves, to take a journey – all of that is such an inspiration to me and how I want to live my life. It is my hope that like the magi, we might be able to understand and to ponder people unlike us without judging. That instead of bringing conflict into our relationships, we bring gifts. Not things that we buy, but things that we make: a gift of caring, a gift of empathy, a gift of love, even when we don’t feel like it. That is our story. We will do the rest. AMEN.