The story of the Magi has fascinated writers and artists through the ages. O. Henry told a short story of poor newly-weds who, at great personal sacrifice, purchased golden gifts for each other on their first Christmas and titled it Gift of the Magi.
T.S. Eliot wrote a famous poem, Journey of the Magi in which he hinted that the meeting of the Magi with the new-born Christ Child effected in them a death to their former life, offering them the promise of rebirth.
The evangelist Matthew's account of the nativity of Jesus includes several episodes not found in Luke. Central to his narrative is the coming of a Gentile entourage to Bethlehem, guided by a star. They carried with them precious gifts to offer in homage to the infant “king of the Jews” in Mary's arms.
It seems that the “Magoi” were a caste of learned men associated with astrology, magic, Zoroastrianism, the interpretation of dreams. In times of social change people are attracted to astral religion because the stars offer regularity and order. However, such religious observances also make people feel helpless, subject to impersonal forces and fate written in the stars.
In the gospel narrative, the star serves God's purpose, but it plays a secondary role to the Scriptures which tell of a Davidic king to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2 combined with 2 Samuel 5:2). With the reappearance of the star after the prophets have been consulted, it becomes clear that both revelation and nature point the Magi to Jesus.
The name of today's feast is "Epiphany", a word meaning the “manifestation” or "showing" of Jesus. This revelation of Jesus to “wise men from the East”—to non-Jews, to Gentiles—evokes for Christians the joy attached to gift-giving. More importantly, the offering of costly gifts by the Magi suggests the price of surrendering to Christ:
“On entering the house, they saw the Child with Mary His Mother; and they knelt down and paid Him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh”.
Interpreters have seen symbolism in the gifts given. Early on the church saw in the gold a pointer to Jesus' role as a king, frankincense to His divinity and in myrrh an indication that He would die. A legend in The Travels of Marco Polo says the three gifts were to determine who Jesus was. If the new-born took the gold, he would be an earthly king, if frankincense a god, if myrrh a healer. Jesus took all three.
Whatever the truth in the connection between the gifts and Jesus' identity, a likelier interpretation of the gospel writer's understanding of the gifts given by the Magi lies elsewhere. The worship and presentation of offerings represent the end-time pilgrimage of the nations and their submission to the one true God at the end of their journey.
The Scriptures continue to guide people to Christ. Still, surrendering to Him requires a personal decision. Yielding to Christ, as the Magi did, leads to commitments such as helping to change the earth into a place where justice and peace reign. This is the message of today's psalm in response to Isaiah's vision of a world-wide empire under the authority of the messianic heir of David's kingship.
The Epiphany celebrates the peoples of the world coming to know God's Son as their Saviour. In the words of Ephesians concerning Jesus' death and resurrection, thereby 'the Gentiles have become fellow heirs [with believing Jews], members of the same body [the Church, Christ's Body], and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel'.
Leonardo da Vinci's painting Adoration of the Magi offers not just a foreground, but also a background. Behind the Magi and Jesus are buildings in ruin and mounted soldiers in combat. The world suffers from chaos and decay; relationships need to be set right.
For at Jesus' birth, Jerusalem is troubled and a wicked ruler sits on the throne, causing innocent blood to be shed (Matthew 2:16-18). The world is out of joint. Is it any wonder, then, that the first word spoken by Jesus, when at last He begins His public ministry, should be “Repent!” (4:17).
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May the splendour of your majesty, O Lord, we pray, shed its light upon our hearts, that we may pass through the shadows of this world and reach the brightness of our eternal home. Through our Lord.
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"Journey of the Magi",
by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
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.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
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