Now, finally, on the first day of Epiphany, more strangers arrive at the manger. These ones come bearing gifts, having stopped in to get directions from Herod along the way. What shall we call them? What do we know of them? What real contribution, other than a bit of glitz, do they bring to the nativity?
These strangers are something of a mystery. We often refer to them as a trio, but Matthew, who gives us our vague description, does not specify a number. In Christianity they are variously called wise men, magi, or Three Kings. But what makes them wise? Surely they had to know that announcing to Herod a threat to his power would not be in the best interests of Jesus, a mere babe, with a bold prophecy. And what makes them Kings? True, they arrive at Herod’s palace and make demands: “Where is this child?” they ask Herod, like equals. “Give us directions,” they insist. But then, Matthew describes them as deferring to Herod, being “sent” by him, and agreeing, at least initially, to spy for him.
As for their being magi, we know that the concept of “magic” existed in Jesus’s day – we learn in Acts of Simon, who practiced magic, and claimed power of his own, and eventually came to be baptized and believed in Jesus. And we are told that they received a dream after arriving at the manger, warning them to avoid Herod for their own sakes.
Perhaps we can see them as we wish – as Kings, as wise people, as a travelling trio, as magi. It is their contribution to the Christmas story that is important and it is not insignificant.
First, they serve as confirmation of the story of Jesus; they fulfill the prophecy as told in Isaiah. They bring valuable gifts worthy of royalty – not a babe in a manger. They bring frankincense, an oil used in religious rites and for medicine – which has been interpreted by scholars to represent Jesus future role as a spiritual leader. Myrrh was also used as an oil to anoint kings, but also to prepare bodies for burial – perhaps a sign of the sacrifice to come. And gold – that one is most easily understood – a treasure fit for a ruler.
Indeed, these gifts would have been extremely valuable to the parents of Jesus. So, what did Mary and Joseph do with them? We cannot know for sure. But the Bible describes the wrath of Herod, and the risk to Jesus, and that Mary and Joseph were somehow able to flee to safety, despite having little means to do so. Did those gifts make their escape possible?
The magi also represent the welcoming of the educated class at the manger – the wealthy. It is often noted that Jesus was born and protected first by the poor – the powerless given power by God’s trust. But then we – who are relatively wealthy in the world – might feel excluded. So, the magi’s making their grand entrance tells us otherwise – that in the gospel of Jesus there is a place for reason, for education, for learned wisdom, and for those with privilege.
On the first day of Epiphany, we are granted this epiphany: that the gospel is truly diverse. It thrives only when that diverse combination exists – not only instinct and resourcefulness, but also higher learning and scholarship. Until the magi arrive we have a group of people who followed angels appearing to them, who were given a choice to listen and took it. But now we have, in the magi, a group who had analyzed the prophecies and scripture, who had studied the sky, and were coming – as if on a research expedition – to discover if it could be true. They are the first investigators of the gospel, the first doubters. Only after seeing for themselves, after a consideration of all the evidence, do they come to believe.
And so, the magi, or the wise men, or these kings, also give us a gift. Where we struggle to emulate the strength of Mary’s belief, or the all-in actions of Joseph and the Shepherds, these new arrivals to the manger give us the gift of doubt. Permission to question. Encouragement to see the gospel not only as a divine self-help manual, but also as an intellectual exercise.
True faith cannot exist without doubt. It requires the sandpaper of doubt to smooth its edges, to reveal the fullness of its truth. It insists upon the pursuit of knowledge to reveal its wider value – not only to us as individuals, but within the societies we create.
We cannot continue to understand how to use the teachings of Jesus without also understanding the world in which we live. These magi bring that complexity to the nativity. They come with their mix of challenge to power and deference to it – the balancing act we all perform. In the end, though, they make their own decision about what to do in the face of that all too fallible human power. When it proves corrupt, they reject it.
And so, these wise visitors to the manger round out our nativity story. A journey of faith and love and risk also becomes one of contemplation and exploration. In doing so, God reminds us that questioning our faith and evaluating what we believe is an important part of our Christmas story, and essential to the complex work of making the gospel a part of our larger world. Amen