‘Epiphany’ means ‘manifestation.’ From very early times, Christians have celebrated three different events today — the revelation of God’s son to the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the miracle of the Wedding Feast at Cana. Each progressively revealed God’s plan of salvation. At Jesus’ baptism, which has its own feast day in a week, the heavens were opened and a voice proclaimed him the Beloved in whom God was well pleased. This was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, his signal appearance on the stage of history. The wedding feast at Cana, found only in John’s Gospel, serves the same purpose — in changing the water into wine, Jesus revealed his saving mission surprisingly, even prematurely, as an act of compassion and obedience.
But the ‘Magoi’ remain the primary focus of our attention today — these mysterious strangers, outsiders from the East, who come seeking the
King of the Jews. From the earliest times, Christians have wondered who they were. People still do. Or even if they really existed at all. Perhaps they are only characters in a story Matthew uses to make a point. Perhaps he was thinking of the passage from Isaiah we just heard. He doesn’t say. He usually does.
One thing is clear: they three kings of Orient weren’t. The crowns and funny names come much later, when kings no longer persecuted Christians and Christianity had become an imperial religion. They could have been Zoroastrian priests from Persia, these Maghdim as they were called, and God only knows how many of them came looking for the King of the Jews. Or why. But belief in a universal redeemer was part of Zoroastrian religion at that time, which held that after the appearance on earth of a virgin-born savior, God would triumph over evil. Not perhaps by chance the birthday of Mithras, a semi-divine figure of this eastern religion greatly favored by the Roman military, was celebrated on December 25th. He was, incidentally, said to have born in a cave.
Historically, the Magoi were associated with magic (which is named after them) and especially astrology, for they studied the patterns of stars and planets to determine how events on earth manifested the plan of God. Two other Magoi in the New Testament, Simon Magus and Elymas bar Jesus, whom we meet in the Acts of the Apostles, were somewhat sinister figures. Each resists the Gospel at first, but both are inevitably subdued by the preaching of the apostles. Here, the Magoi need no convincing. For Matthew, these gentiles submit willingly to the revelation of God, having followed his star out of the east. Their faith is also seen in their quick acceptance of the warning that comes to them in a dream, as it will to Joseph.
And so, after worshipping the child and leaving their gifts, they pass out of sight. These mysterious gifts, like their quest for the King of the Jews, point us ahead, however, to other anointings, other searches for the King of the Jews, and a final dream in Matthew’s gospel, the dream of a Roman matron who warns her husband not to have anything to do with the man called Jesus on trial for his life.
Now, however, we are left with the Magoi and their gifts. What do they tell us about this strange little king who was not a king and his plan for us?
What they brought wasn’t necessary, wasn’t big, and wasn’t even useful — except, perhaps, for the gold. What they brought represented lasting value and precious fragrance. Gold (chrysos), it is said, stands for eternal worth, because it never tarnishes and never loses its value. Frankincense (Libanon), which means pure incense, was used in the temple as a sacrificial offering. Myrrh (Smyrna) is a resin gum often made into an oil used in medicine, perfume, and incense. These are rich gifts, not so much costly as priceless — for they are only appropriate as gestures of homage, love, and reverence — odd gifts, fit only for a king. Or a god.
In light of the kind of things usually exchanged on Christmas as gifts, what the Magoi didn’t bring can be as important as what they did bring. Think for a moment about what you or I might have brought and in fact tend to give one another: toys, food, candy, cigarettes, liquor, clothing, cell phones, books, tools, or even weapons. Not only perishable, but even dangerous offerings. Ancient kings were also dangerous. The Magoi might have paid for their visit with their lives, as the Babes of Bethlehem certainly did. For these foreigners first looked for the King of the Jews where a king was likely to be found: in a palace. They eventually found what they were looking for, Matthew tells us, in a house, probably a very ordinary house. But the Holy Family who lived there were about to become homeless refugees.
So who are the Magoi, these representative Gentiles looking for the meaning of life? We are, of course. The strangers and outsiders now brought into the realm of God’s saving love. And where do we look for the King not only of the Jews, but of all humanity? Among the rich and powerful? Or among the poor, the outcast, the homeless, refugees, and the oppressed? And what gifts do we bring?