Tuesday, January 6, 2015

a reflection on the Epiphany

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.

Who were the wise men whose visit to the Christ-child we celebrate today? Other than that they were wise and they were men we can say very little. True, to that we can add they came from the East, but east of Bethlehem covers a lot of territory. Also, we can say that they knew about the prophecy that a great king was to be born in Israel; but as scholars of today agree that this was something that scholars of that day would have been likely to know about, that doesn't add much. It does narrow the possibilities down to those parts of the world most likely to have heard of these ancient Jewish prophesies: so perhaps they were from Arabia; or maybe Persia.

Well, at least we know there were three of them; after all, this is what every crib in every church and every Christian home shows. Except we don't even really know that. All Matthew's Gospel says is that there were wise men. Plural, more than one, but other than that he doesn't specify. It might only have been two; it could have been ten or more. We get the idea of there being three from the number of gifts that they bring: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But three gifts does not prove three men.

That they bring valuable gifts, coupled with the fact that they have the resources to make a long and fairly open ended journey – remember, when they set off, they don't know exactly where this star is going to lead them and how long they will be gone – suggests that they are wealthy men. Not, perhaps, necessarily the kings of later tradition; but neither can we rule it out absolutely either. The fact that they are readily received at the court of King Herod gives a certain credibility to the idea that they might have been, like him, at least minor kings; kings in name, but with little power and influence outside of their own little kingdoms in those days of the ever increasing might of Roman Empire.

But we do know with certainty that these are Magi – wise men, scholars; men well versed in prophetic writings and in recognising when the prophesies which they have studied are in the process of being fulfilled. And we also know they are in some way holy men, men who are in touch with the Divine – by which I do not mean idols or other false gods – demons, St Paul calls these - but the one true God as he was known to the Hebrews. Remember that they will be warned in a dream not to trust the empty promises of Herod and to return home by another way. This seems extremely reminiscent of the way in which St Joseph is visited by an angel and told not to be afraid to marry the Virgin who is with child, to flee from Herod's murderous wrath, and that it is at last safe to return from Egypt. St Matthew does not mention an angel being part of their dream warning, but it is clear that God himself has spoken to them in some way in this dream. And they obey this divine command. And is not being obedient to God's will an essential part of being holy?

Their wisdom and holiness adds greater significance to the gifts they bring. These gifts are not merely symbols of their own wealth and power; each has a deeper meaning. Gold signifies kingship; and we know from what these men say in Jerusalem to Herod and his courtiers that they know that the one that they seek is a king. Frankincense, a precious incense, is what is offered in the temple to almighty God; these wise men, at some level, recognise the divinity of the one to whom they have come to pay homage, that he, like God is one worthy of worship, one who like God is worthy of an offering of incense. And the final gift, myrrh, is prophetic in nature; for myrrh is what is used to anoint the bodies of the dead for burial. These wise men recognise in some way that this divine king is marked for death from the beginning. And yet, even though they know he is to die, they travel a long, hard road, bearing rich gifts, to pay homage to one they know is to die.

Do they see beyond his death? Do they understand what it means for someone who is man, and king, and God to die? We do not know; we know only that they were wise men who followed a star to kneel at the feet of a child and to worship him. And we also know that if we are wise like them we will do likewise, we will make of our lives an endless journey whose purpose is solely to kneel at the feet of the one who is our Lord, and king, and God. Amen.  

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