In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Epiphany is one of my favorite holidays of the Church. We celebrate the moment when people outside of the immediate path of Jesus’s entry into the world come to acknowledge the incarnation of God on earth. The magi make their long journey from the East and come into Judea. The brief portrait we are given of that journey is that they followed a star, came to the Herodian palace, and from there found their way to Bethlehem. It was in Bethlehem that they found the Christ. This was not immediately after Jesus was born, as we often depict it, but probably a few years later. Jesus was not an infant, but a toddler, perhaps even walking, by the time these strange wanderers arrived.
The title given to these visitors is “Magi,” or singularly, each one was a “Magus.” This term is where we derive our modern word “Magician.” While this term could indicate any number of people, from court wizards to street entertainers, it is generally understood that these Magi were likely tied to Persia and its mystical traditions. This would not be idle sorcery but was an official position similar to that of a priest. These would be doctors and astronomers, soothsayers, and miracle workers. The people, far removed from Judea and its ancient Israelite religion, were among the first to discern that a savior was coming into the world.
The fact that these travelers were not Jewish revealed a truth about Jesus that even his followers would not understand until some time after Jesus’s resurrection. This truth was that God was not coming to save one people alone but was beginning work that would eventually bring the entire world into the Kingdom of Heaven. The first to proclaim the gospel were a few shepherds in Bethlehem, but the first Gentiles to be welcomed in were these travelers from far outside the Judea’s boundaries. We never get the full story of their life, what this visit ultimately meant to them, but it cannot be denied that they left an impression that we celebrate to this day.
The exact number of people who came to give Jesus gifts is not given in the Gospel. Not only do we not know the number of Magi present, but we do not know who they brought with them. A group of officials like this would probably have a full entourage trailing behind them. Retainers, servants, armed guards, you name it, they would have brought it. This huge group would have snaked their way across the ancient highways of the world, leaving Persia and coming into the Levant. When they arrived in Jerusalem it would have been the talk of the town for weeks. “Remember when those dignitaries came through! They were following some star apparently! Who’d have thought?!”
Their arrival was not announced ahead of actually entering the city, and so it did not take long for the King to hear what was going on in the city. Herod the Great, the ruling monarch, had stayed on the throne through a delicate dance of placating Roman power and appealing to his Jewish subjects. He himself was Idumean, or to put in Old Testament terms, he was an Edomite. This group had a consistent rivalry with Judea before the Babylonian Exile, and so many would have been suspicious of him when he took to the throne. He tried to secure some favor with the people by rebuilding the Temple, but to fund it he pillaged the tombs of King David and Solomon. He was a ruthless man, and he had several family members killed to maintain his power.
So, when these foreign dignitaries arrive telling him that a new King has been born in Judea, Herod would instantly see this as a threat. A foreign power was acknowledging someone other than himself as the legitimate power in his Kingdom. Herod spoke sweetly to the visiting Magi, but he was already plotting murder the moment he heard a threat was brewing just a little south of his capital city. He sent them off with a few kind words and the promise that, if they found the child, he would follow behind and worship him also.
It is this visceral political drama that sets the stage for the Magi to give their gifts to Jesus. This small child receives gold and frankincense and myrrh. While these are sometimes written off as symbolic gestures – Gold for a king, incense for a God, and myrrh for a burial – it is more likely that these were purely practical gifts. Gold allowed the family to survive the uncertain times ahead, the incense would be used in the home and for worship, and myrrh could be used both religiously and medicinally for any number of purposes. The three gifts given were not meant to be symbolic portents of Jesus’s future, but a present provision for his life in the moment.
When the Magi left, they were warned not to go back to Herod. It would not have taken the King long to realize that they had caught wise to his plans. Not long after the Magi are warned, Joseph and Mary would also be warned of Herod’s plans. The family would suddenly become refugees, fleeing into Egypt like Abraham and countless others before them. Herod would follow behind, killing many innocents in the name of his own claims to power. A hollow action for a seventy-year-old man who would die only a year or so later.
The epiphany captures such highs and lows of humanity. The pure expression of adoration from the Magi is contrasted by the darkness of Herod’s murderous rage. When we look at these three statues over here, we should see the weight they carry. They are the first to acknowledge the divinity of Christ outside Judea, but they unwittingly bring death to Bethlehem in their visitation. The Kingdom of God is breaking out in the most unexpected places, and the powers that be are unhappy to see that they are not included in that estimation. God is shaking things up and whenever there is a shake up, those with everything to lose are usually the first ones to start fussing over what comes next.
In our own lives we are constantly given the choice between responding to Jesus like the Magi or like Herod. If we act like Magi, then we see Jesus appearing among the unlikely people of the world and rejoice. We seek out God in the places we do not expect to find God – the poor, the oppressed, those with no money or power in the world. Jesus is not hiding in the halls of congress or the throne rooms of Kings, Jesus is in the presence of all the poor and powerless of the earth.
We could also respond to Jesus like Herod did, seeing Jesus as a threat. To do this is to define the Kingdom of God in our own terms. Jesus is found among those who act the way we would like them to. Those with money and power and influence that we can benefit from are welcomed in, while the poor are left out in the cold. We define neighbor as those, not who share the world with us, but who offer opportunity to us. The Kingdom of God, as we imagine it in this vision of the world, would be a continuation of the World we currently live in. The rich get richer, the poor keep pulling on bootstraps that just get longer and longer, and no justice ever manifests but the cold indifference of a fallen world.
The Magi teach us what it is to adore Jesus. To come before the throne and truly offer up all that we are to a power beyond ourselves. These men who had everything in the world were willing to make an expensive journey, to cover hundreds of miles with hundreds of people, all so that they could worship the God they had known was being born into the world. As difficult as it was to make the journey, the duty they held toward God was enough to keep them pushing forward. The gifts they gave were what saw Jesus and his family through their time in Egypt, they were a provision for the needy family as they fled over borders to avoid the dangerous of their homeland.
The Kingdom of God is still bursting into life all around us. For all of us here there are opportunities for us to join in the adoration of Christ or to join in the glorification and continuation of our own sinful ways. Do we want the world in its present broken form, or in the form that Jesus promises to us? I for one put my money on the King of Kings leading better than any leader that comes or goes in this world. Herod fought long and hard to take the throne, selling out his people to an oppressive empire whenever he could to stay there. Jesus gave up everything to live among his people, and even when they repaid his love with murder, he did not cease in advocating for them, rising up to prove even death could be overcome.
Epiphany is the day that the powerful laid down all they had to glorify the lowly child that had come to save them. Once a year, as Christmas fades away and we count the days till Lent, we take a moment to realize the stakes that were laid out for us at Christmas. This was not just a day to celebrate a birth or to welcome in Winter, Christmas is a season to count the cost of our salvation. The cost to the people of Bethlehem, to the Magi, to the Holy Couple, and most of all to God in Christ. We are saved for a terrible price, and that price needs to be lifted up and remembered.
Today, we adore the author of our salvation. Today we count up all that was given to see us freed from our sin. We all see in the revelation of God on earth something profound, and we see in this appearance of perfect holiness on earth the beginning of something we cannot even understand. The world of God, perfect and new, breaking out in the furthest corner of our world. God is bringing Heaven to Earth, let us come and worship the one who brings us into this new existence. – Amen.