Today’s Biblical story is a familiar one. Everyone knows about the wise ones, commonly called magi coming to visit the Christ child. Everyone knows about them bringing “gold, frankincense and myrrh,” from the carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” No surprises here! We are all familiar with the story! We know what happened. But if we look at today’s scripture closely, especially as it is told in the Gospel of Matthew, we may find a new meaning to Epiphany, the liturgical season that begins today and wisdom for this brand new year 2019. I invite you to journey with me behind the story in the scriptures.
Before we begin our journey, I would like to refer to a children’s book that contains a truth. About 60 years ago, Dr. Seuss wrote a book called How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957). Many of you know the story, which happens in the town of Whoville. The Grinch hates seeing and hearing all the people celebrating Christmas – so he tries to figure out a way to stop Christmas from coming to Whoville.
He decides that if he steals all the presents, decorations, and special Christmas food then he can stop Christmas from coming. The Grinch spends the whole night before Christmas sneaking around and stealing everything Christmassy from all the houses in Whoville. When Christmas morning comes the Grinch is shocked that his plan had not worked – Christmas still had come to Whoville. The people are still happy and they gather hand-in-hand to sing Christmas songs. He learns that Christmas is more than just presents and decorations. The Grinch says, “Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more.”
In our Gospel reading from Matthew 2:1-12, we see a Grinch. King Herod was frightened by the visit of the magi who came from the East to pay homage to the Christ child.The magi ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” At this question King Herod is terrified. He believes that he alone is king and that there can be no other. Matthew tells of Herod’s and the peoples’ reaction, “[King Herod] was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” They are frightened because a new king in Jerusalem would be a threat to Herod and to his tyrannical rule. All those who trusted in and benefited from the old colonial government are deeply upset by this new chapter of the new era at the birth of the Christ child. In order to prevent this new era, Herod ordered all the new born male infants to be killed.
Into this mess and anguish of the people of Israel, God comes in Jesus, the human one. God breaks through the lines between heaven and earth, through the centre and the margins. God does not come to Jerusalem but to the little town of Bethlehem. God comes to us in the smelly, lowly, insecure, vulnerable place of the stable.
In order to worship the Christ child, the magi travel a very insecure journey to an unknown and lowly place. The magi are not Jews like Mary, Joseph and Jesus. They come from a country or countries far away, probably Asians; they are outsiders, strangers and gentiles. T. S Eliot’s poem describes “The Journey of the Magi”:
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
’And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.…
The magi continue on their journey until they find the child, and then something very significant happens, something that our traditions, Christmas pageants, carols, and Epiphany celebrations may have hidden. The magi do not immediately present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Gospel says that the first thing they do upon entering the house and seeing Mary and the child is to kneel down and pay him homage (2:11). To recognize the real gift of the magi, we may need to go back what the magi did first. Only after searching for the Christ, only after the act of kneeling down, only after giving themselves completely to the Christ, do they present their material gifts. From this scene we are not trying to promote mindless worship; rather we may need the spirit of wonder, discovery and being opening to the Other.
Today’s Gospel in Matthew shows the spirit of wonder, discovery and openness to the Other that is needed on our faith journey. It is as if Matthew is telling his community not to form a circle against the Other, not to keep them out, but to welcome them in. Matthew is telling us that our community should embrace the Others.
The journey of the magi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem was not easy, not only because of Herod’s order to report back, but also because it is far from their imagination of the proper birthing place for a king. When they had arrived in Jerusalem in their search for the Christ, they believed the new born Christ child would be born in a big, strong city like Jerusalem. They could never imagine that the Christ child would be born in a manger.
But in the journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem their faith has been strengthened. After worshiping the Christ child and his family the magi leave for their own country by another road. They do not follow the order of King Herod. Thus they play an important role in the birth of Jesus. They save the child from King Herod’s massacre. They understand God’s vision for the world: God comes to us to strengthen the Other like the magi and the people who live in Bethlehem.
If we pay too much attention to the gifts of the magi, we may become a good friend of the Grinch who wanted tostop Christmas from coming to his village. Herod and the Grinch couldn’t get rid of the spirit of yearning for, wondering about, searching for and worshiping the Christ.
The New Year lies ahead of us. The journey of the magi invites us into the future with the spirit of wonder, discovery and being open to the Other.The magi show us how the journey of faith can begin anew here, in worship, seeking the vision of God, sharing our gifts with others and journeying together toward a new life. May this journey be ours in this New Year!
Now we are invited to the Communion Table. Come, come to the table of the Christ who is growing in and among us. So be it!