A reflection for the Epiphany of the Lord
Today, much of the Christian church will celebrate Epiphany (“manifestation,”) which commemorates when the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus is made known to the whole world. A traditional reading for Epiphany is Matthew 2:1-12, the story of the magi — the first gentiles to receive this divine revelation.
Who were these wise travelers from the east? Why did they brave this long and perilous journey? Did they find what they were seeking? What gifts did they bring?
Some Bible translations call them “wise men.” Others call them astrologers, kings, or magi. Which is it? The Greek word here is “magoi,” which means neither “wise men” nor “kings.” Magi were likely highly educated and knowledgeable in astrology, astronomy, history, philosophy, medicine and mathematics.
They would interpret dreams, foretell the future, and read the stars and how they affect human events. Some were magicians — mediators between humans and the higher powers — and would attempt to use their own rituals and methods to manipulate events.
Who were the magi?
The magi in the gospel story are indeed wise, for they recognize the star and walk in its light. When at last they see the child with his mother, they overflow with joy! Then they don’t just kneel — they fall — in worship, lay down their former beliefs and practices and turn their hearts and hopes over to him. And, opening up their treasure chests, they offer their most precious gifts.
I think of my grand kids with their treasure boxes, where they save and protect their collections of little jewels and coins and rocks and sea shells and pine cones and Pokemon cards and whatever else they cherish.
They delight when they open the box, take each treasure out one by one, show them off. Then they put them back and close the lid and keep it somewhere safe.
Imagine giving any of these treasures away to someone! It would have to be someone very special. Someone you loved so much that you just had to share something of yourself — your most cherished treasure — with them. That’s what the magi do.
Matthew mentions only three — gold, frankincense and myrrh — which in the ancient world were standard gifts to honor a king or a deity.
Gold is a highly precious metal which only the very wealthy can give as a gift. Frankincense is a perfume used in offerings, including at the Jerusalem Temple (Ex 30:9, 34-38). Myrrh provides an oil for anointing and embalming of the dead.
They point to the Christ child as king and as divine, and to his death, and echo the prophet Isaiah (60:1-6), who envisions nations and royals and all sorts of people coming from afar to God’s light, bringing their abundance and their gold and frankincense and praising God.
Why do these rich and influential sorcerers and sages leave the comfort and prestige and power of their world, and risk the discomfort and dangers of a weeks-or-months-long journey to what could have been a hostile and unwelcoming place? Why do they give up so much, make themselves so vulnerable, and feel such exuberant joy when they find this child?
It’s extraordinary! And I feel like there’s something Matthew isn’t telling us. I find it hard to believe that their only gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Although generous, I would call these “outward gifts.”
And yet the whole story points to a profusion of “inward gifts.” Inward gifts are unseen to the human eye, but not to God, who sees the heart (1 Sam 16:7).
Actually, inward gifts are visible when we put them into action. In forgiveness and mercy. In advocacy for justice. In peacemaking and kindness and acts of service. In gratitude. In all the big and little ways we share faith, and hope and love.
The prophets and psalmists teach us that it’s these inward gifts that matter most to God. (See Hosea 6:6, Psalm 51:16-17, Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:6-8). As I read between the lines of this story, I see more. I imagine that at least some of them brought simple gifts. Gifts of the heart.
Faith, Hope, Love
Matthew doesn’t say anything in this story about faith, or hope, or even the greatest of gifts — love. And yet, faith, hope and love are everywhere in this story! What else but faith could have opened the eyes and hearts of these magi to perceive the world in a whole new way and turn their lives upside down?
What else but hope could carry them through the darkness of fear, deceit, confusion and uncertainty into the clear and compassionate light of Christ?
What else but unbridled love could move them to feel such pure joy at the sight of a child? And they are moved by love — the love of God — a love so beautiful, so powerful, so vulnerable — a love they had never fully understood before — now made known to them and the whole world.
Epiphany — and a new year — offer us an opportunity to go deeper with this story: to travel with the magi, to contemplate what God is making manifest to us at this time, to think about how Christ Jesus has transformed our lives, or our way of seeing the world and our fellow beings, to consider what gifts — both outward and inward — we can and will offer to Christ.
Questions for reflection
What might we be clinging to that’s holding us back, or keeping us down or in the dark? Is the Holy Spirit calling us to let it go, to leave it behind and move in the direction of the healing light of Christ? Are we willing to take the first step — or the next step — on that sacred pilgrimage?
Who or what are we seeking? When we find it will we recognize it? Will we know it by its love — for us and for all others?
Will we have the trust and the humility to lay down our burdens and struggles and fears right there, give a huge sigh of relief and just collapse in the arms of Providence?
What gifts are worthy of this Holy One who is embodied in all God’s beloved creation? Let’s look into our own treasure boxes and, like the magi. Consider what gifts we can — and will — offer to Christ today and in this new year!