Several years ago a friend sent me a Christmas card with a picture of the 3 Magi. Nothing unusual about that you might say but instead of Wise Men they were clearly Wise Women! And on the inside of the card it said “if the Three Wise Men had been women they would have not gotten lost; they would have arrived on time to help deliver the baby and they would have brought practical gifts skipping the gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they would have cleaned the stable and made a casserole!”
What do we really know about the Maji? Not a whole lot in spite of this week’s Economist which delves into the question of the tradition of the Maji/wise men in its lead article. Where did they come from? “The east”. But where in the East? How far East? Matthew’s image was that they came from a long way away, but we don’t really know specifics.
It is a strange story and none of the other gospel writers included it – Luke has the shepherds and Mark and John have no birth stories at all. So why did Matthew include this story? To Matthew’s readers, the tyranny described of Herod the King rang true. Clearly they would understand Matthew’s message that Jesus was born in an atmosphere of violence and terror that was supported by the Roman government which had destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, some 40 years after Jesus’ death.
How many of them were there and what kind of men were they? Again, we don’t know. In the second century, a Christian leader named Tertullian suggested that these men were kings because prophets had predicted that kings would come to worship him. He also concluded that there were three kings based on the number of gifts mentioned, gold, frankincense and myrrh.
By the third century, biblical interpreters were finding echoes of Psalm 72 in the narrative of the three gift-bearing visitors: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, may all nations serve him” (Psalm 72:10–11). The magi were identified as these kings of “all nations” who worshiped the Christian messiah, bowing down to give him homage. They became a potent sign that Christ’s salvation was predicted and open to the whole world. The rising of the new star marked the coming of the new age envisioned in the Old Testament.
But strangely, the Bible doesn’t tell us who they were or how many of them came. Regardless of where they were from and how they knew, Matthew tells us that they traveled far to find the king of the Jews and that they recognized him and brought gifts and worshiped him. Matthew’s purpose was to proclaim a message that God’s revelation is for all people, or as the Economist puts it — “for everyman”. Thus the story is one of universalism – a proclamation that no one is to be excluded from God’s love. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ.
It seems to me that Matthew wanted his reader to understand something about the reality of life and the nature of God. The story also acknowledges the reality of evil: those in the world who would do us harm, take life, destroy what is healthy and good out of their own fear of loss of power and control. Herod represents that which is ‘life taking’ in this world. We call it “evil”. It tears down and destroys. It divides and separates. It prevents us from living life as God intended.
It is clear that the writer of this Gospel wanted us to understand that life was hard for Jesus. There was no comfortable, safe palace for this king, instead in his telling of the early life of Jesus, Matthew’s Joseph, and Mary went as homeless refugees, terrorized by the violence of Herod’s soldiers. They, like refugees the world over and all who flee in fear of violence, must have been filled with fear and anxiety about the future.
The early followers of Jesus for whom this account was written would have heard this story in the light of their own life experiences and of the history of the Hebrew people, fleeing from the wrath of the Pharaoh, across the desert, homeless refugees with only the clothes on their back and bread that had not even had time to rise before it was baked. He told Moses his name was “YHWH.” Or as one translation says: “I am there.” Whether in the midst of the sea, or in the wilderness or on the mountain, God was there with them. As Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled in terror from Herod’s wrath, the refugees were never alone – God was there.
The writer of the Gospel wanted his reader to know that even in the midst of violence, terrorizing fear and homelessness, the young family faced their reality in such a way that they were able to love and nurture Jesus in his infancy and childhood, giving him a foundation of confidence on which would rest his absolute trust in the protective and empowering love of God.
The Rev. Martin Smith, retired Abbot of the Society of St. John the Evangelist and writer says of Joseph: “In my imagination I can see the icon of Joseph I would like. It comes to me sometimes at the sursum corda of the Eucharist: “Lift up your hearts!” Deep down, Smith says, these words touch a chord of memory we have being lifted up as children as again and again fathers reach down and take hold of their children under the armpits and swoop them into the air. I love watching my son lift his son high in the air and then gently put the baby on his shoulders as Ellis says “Daddy”. …. imagine the image of Joseph lifting Jesus up, holding him, while he cried laughingly, “Abba, Father”. As I think of Matthew’s story of Joseph, I am moved by how he chose to face his difficulties with such grace as to teach Jesus how to love in spite of the horror of their near escape and the threat and danger posed by Herod.
Moving into this new year – a year like last but with its own set of fears, let us note the willingness of the Magi to risk extravagantly in order to lay their gifts at the altar of God, the ability of Joseph to hear the message of the angels in the quiet and stillness, and the grace of Joseph, even in the midst of life threatening danger, to give the boy Jesus a foundation of confidence on which would rest his absolute trust in the love of God.
Whether acknowledged this way or not, most people I know long to know such an intimacy with Christ that you could reach out and touch him and know his healing touch as well. I do not know what you might need to risk in order to lay your gifts at the altar and know that intimacy. I do not know what message God’s angels might have for you. I do not know what grace you might need to rely on as you face the reality of your life.
I do know that now is a good time to look honestly at life, to re-examine priorities. I do know that we stand on the threshold of a new opportunity to walk closer to God and I invite you to come along, believing deeply that wherever you go, whatever life brings, God is there. AMEN