Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
Today we recall the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Unlike in most Nativity plays, these Magi were not actually at the birth of Jesus, nor did they arrive that very night or day. Traditionally we mark their coming on Twelfth Night or Epiphany – twelfth night being quite naturally the twelfth day after the birth of Jesus, and ‘epiphany’ being a manifestation, usually a manifestation of the divine.
I am really quite fascinated by this particular passage in Matthew about the visit of the Magi – there are just so many interesting layers of meaning. In the scripture itself the number of Magi is not specified, and we have taken the number three from the number of gifts that were brought. But really we don’t know the number.
Magi at the time of Jesus birth were really rather suspect characters, associated with interpretation of dreams and of the movement of the stars – and because of this with magic. And it is partly because of this scholars believe the literal veracity, or truth, of the tale. Why recount the visit of a suspect group of outsiders to the birth of the Messiah? Wouldn’t this be cause for suspicion rather than a proof of his divinity and special birth? And yet Matthew has chosen to include this story. There is an interpretation of the New Testament from a Jewish perspective which considers this visit to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles as well as to the Jewish people – and this is also reflected in many Christian interpretations.
But how did we get from suspect Magi to Kings? This, again, points to another series of layers of meaning. The gold, frankincense and myrrh are usually interpreted as representing a recognition of Jesus royalty, represented by gold; his priestly or sanctified status, represented by frankincense; and myrrh to be held onto for anointing his body upon death. But it is also representative of the expensive and royal gifts brought by the Queen of Sheba to Solomon – that of gold and spices, and that her gifts foreshadow the royal and holy status of the Messiah. These gifts to Solomon have also been reflected in the first reading from Isaiah – which refers to the exalted status of Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem is here depicted as a widow mourning the loss of her beloved – but is comforted by visions of the restoration of her glory, not in human kingship but in the kingship of the Divine. This reference is purposeful – the passage from the Gospel of Matthew is reinforcing the divinity of Christ in referring to these royal gifts to be presented before Jerusalem. Jesus is the divine king who will rule Jerusalem, and who will rule the world, though possibly not in the political sense we understand today. That leadership is one of the heart, Love as the law by which all are sustained.
This passage also has a clever difference in the use of words by the Gentile Magi and those used by Herod. The Magi refer to the child to be born as King of the Jews, which would certainly have been a challenge to Herod’s kingly rule. But then Herod turns around and refers his chief priests and advisers not to the birth of a king but to the possible birth of the Messiah. He is asking a theological question about the signs of the birth of the Messiah, while the Magi are asking very practical questions.
This actually makes Herod’s decision to slaughter the innocents all the more insidious – he is not seeking the death of a rival king, but seeking the death of the awaited Messiah.
And the recording of this slaughter is purposeful – yet another layer to the story. It is a reflection of the slaughter of male children at the birth of Moses. The danger of this child who would bring down the might of Egypt is foretold to Pharaoh in a dream – reflected by the dreams and foretelling of the Magi.
I was recently asked by a church officer for any thoughts on immigration, and among my responses was the observation that our patron saint, of the diocese and of England, St Alban, gave his life for that of a refugee seeking sanctuary in this blessed isle for the freedom to follow his religion. At Epiphany I tend to reflect on the pride with which many of those I met in Egypt declared their loyalty to the Christ child, proud that Jesus, Mary and Joseph found refuge & shelter in Egypt for a time.
I’m also reminded of my time in Iran, during which the country had taken in a round 1 ½ million refugees from Soviet occupied Afghanistan, & later took in another 1 ½ million from the war with Iraq. A nation suffering economic sanctions was looking after an additional 3 million people, arriving with no possessions or wealth. And also the nation which it is alleged the wise travellers from the east originated: the city of Qum which I came to live in.
Our faith began in the light from a vulnerable child seeking sanctuary, a child that still is seeking safe refuge within our hearts. The power of this child, the light Christ brings, a light the wise cross deserts & mountains to seek, the power of love that brings down tyrants, is seeking still, calling out to us in the plight of boats abandoned in the sea, full of the desperate, fearful & homeless.
In his New Year’s message, the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked on the generosity of Britons to the plight of the world’s suffering, and especially of people such as Pauline Cafferkey battling for her life in a London hospital after succumbing to the Ebola she tried to fight.
Let us pray for the courage of the wise – to welcome the light of the Christ child in our lived lives as well as in our hearts.