The story that we hear in our Gospel reading this morning is very familiar to us all. We can picture in our minds, I am sure, wise men travelling by camel across the desert through a star lit night. Our wise men – depending what Christmas card image is at the forefront of our thoughts – wear strange and lavish clothing as they journey following one star that is brighter than all of the rest. In our own crib scene here in church, the wise men, at the end of their journey are nestled in with the shepherds and the animals as Jesus lies in a manger, bringing together two very different accounts of the early life of Jesus as we find them in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.
In reality, the writers of Matthew’s Gospel (from which we have heard today) know nothing, or at least say nothing, about the birth of Jesus in a stable. They do not tell us that Jesus’ parents travelled to Bethlehem and found no room in the inn. They presume instead, from the information that they have available to them as they write their account of the life of Jesus within one of the earliest Christian communities, that Jesus’ parents lived in Bethlehem and it was there that he was born.
So when the wise men turn up some time later, having first visited Herod at his palace but finding that the new king has not been born there, they find Jesus at home in Bethlehem with his parents at some time within the first two years of his earthly life.
What we do not know about them has been filled in for us by Church tradition and secular innovation over the centuries. We have no idea, for example, how many wise men there were, what their names were, where they came from, how far they travelled, or which star they were following. One women has pointed out that we can certainly be sure that they were men, after all no woman would turn up to visit a young family and bring gifts as useless as gold, frankincense and myrrh, when what would have been really needed was baby food, blankets and clothing!
It was not until the 6th Century that these wise men were given names – Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar – presuming that there was one wise man for each of the three gifts; and even later, in Christian Art, that these three men came to depict the various coloured skin of humanity – representing the mission of God, the love of God in Jesus – for the whole world, for people in every time and culture. So there has been quite a lot of filling-in work done to help us to get to the Christmas card scenes that are so very familiar to us.
Matthew calls these men ‘Magi’ – a word that was used in his own time to refer to ‘magicians’, ‘astrologers’ or experts in interpreting dreams. They were a kind of ancient version of the people who write the horoscopes in our newspapers today. They studied the stars and the planets to find meanings for what was going on around them, and to predict the future.
This seems very strange to us now, I hope none of us start the day by reading the horoscopes to find out what will happen to us in the coming hours, but in the world in which Jesus was born into, there was a very strong sense of the interconnectedness between the stars, the planets and the earth. The kind of advanced astronomy that is familiar to us now was unknown to them, and the lack of artificial lighting meant that the stars and planets were very bright and present to them. They believed that when something important was happening on earth you could expect to see it reflected in the heavens. And that when something significant was happening in the heavens this represented and announced a remarkable event on earth.
Whilst this form of astrology was quite acceptable to these men, who probably came from Persia, it certainly wasn’t acceptable to Jews. Jews then and now, like us as Christians, turn not to inanimate objects like the stars for advice, but instead for our inspiration and guidance we turn to the one who has created them. We simply do not believe that our future, our work, our relationships are controlled by mindless lumps of matter far away in the night sky, any more than we believe them to be controlled by some impersonal and non-responsible power called “fate.” But these men did.
Scholars have laboured to discover what the star in the story might have been. Some have suggested that the account is inspired by a memory of the appearance of Halley’s Comet or a Supernova. More likely, I think, is the fact that the planets Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction with each other three times around the time of Jesus’ birth. Since Jupiter was understood by astrologers to be the ‘royal’ or ‘kingly’ planet, and Saturn was thought by some to represent the Jewish people, the conclusion to these wise men who had studied the stars earnestly for a sign was that a new king of the Jews was a out to be born. But quite why this news was momentous enough to galvanise them to travel however far they travelled in order to pay homage to this new king remains a mystery.
After all, new kings in distant foreign lands would be being born regularly, so they must have known something of the hope-filled rumour that a Jewish king would come at some point in the future and would bring in a new Kingdom which would be so significant that it would impact the whole world. They may even have read the words of the Prophet Isaiah that we heard a few moments ago: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you”, anticipating the day when the Messiah would be in the midst of God’s chosen people.
They come, from wherever they came from, for whatever motivation, to pay homage to this new king of the Jews, and they bring with them three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Perhaps these gifts were the principal items used in the wizardry and magic that magi from the east dabbled in. So in giving the Christ-child gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were handing over their tools of trade. They were demonstrating that they were no longer pagan dabblers in magic. They were letting go of the past because they had found a new guiding star – the Christ child.
Ignatius of Antioch, one of the Early Church Fathers wrote about the encounter like this, “magic crumbled before this star; the spells of sorcery were all broken, and superstition received its death-blow.”
Or perhaps these gifts are symbols of who this baby was and will be. Gold is a gift for a king. It represents power and wealth. This child Jesus is royal and kingly. Frankincense because this baby is God come to earth. Myrrh (used in embalming the dead) indicates this child’s humanity and foreshadows his suffering and death as Saviour of the world. We cannot know what these gifts truly represented in the minds of the Gospel writers because they do not tell us. But what we do know, is that these wise men come from a distant land, a foreign religion, an un-Jewish way of life, to offer their worship to the one that we too worship today.
Imagine the scene – Mary and Joseph, good Jewish people, open the door of their home and find astrologers from the East who have come to pay homage to their son. Without knowing it these men are entirely impure, following a path of life condemned in the Jewish Bible – and yet they turn up, and are welcomed in to a Jewish household as guests to see the child Jesus.
In all of this the point that the Gospel writers are wanting to proclaim, as loudly and as clearly as they can, is that it does not matter by what means they have arrived in the presence of Jesus, they did not need to be transformed before they got there. God’s work begins in them when they come face to face with the baby who will be the hope of all the nations.
Today we celebrate the great festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The word “Epiphany,” literally means “manifestation or appearance of God,” and so today is the Festival of the Manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ: the manifestation of God, in Jesus, in our midst, with us, in our lives. The imagery in our liturgy today speaks of new light in the darkness, as we celebrate the light of Christ amongst us in this season in Australia when we have more light than at any other time in the year.
The wise men remind us that there is no situation, no place, beyond God’s love and presence. If astrologers from a distant land can find him by following a star, then there is no journey so far from God’s kingdom which cannot bring people into the presence of Jesus.
Father Karl Rahner, one of the great Jesuit theologians of the last century writes this, “And now God says to us what God has already said to the earth as a whole through his grace-filled birth: ‘I am there. I am with you. I am your life. I am your time. I am the gloom of your daily routine… I am your joy… I am present in your needs. I have suffered them and they are now transformed but not obliterated from my heart… I am there. Even if you do not see me now, I am there. It is Christmas. Light the candles. They have more right to exist than all the darkness.’”
Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ to distant travellers from the far corners of the earth, and we remember that his light now shines through us, for the sake of those around us. And it cannot ever be extinguished.