This evening we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the commemoration of the visit of the wise men to the Infant Christ. We just heard the story from St. Matthew’s Gospel, and like all the stories of Christmas, it is a touching one. How often has it captured the imaginations of poets and painters.
And how not so?
The ancient sages on their knees before the new-born child;
Wise men paying homage to Wisdom himself;
The wealth and splendor of the East adoring the one born in the poverty of a stable.
The account in Scripture is brief, but a great deal is concentrated there in only a few verses, and much of this meaning is expressed by allusion and symbol.
Part of the meaning and symbolism, of course, is precisely epiphany – manifestation, shining out. The wise men are not Jews, yet they have been led by God to worship the Jewish Messiah. The sacred promises of Israel are embodied in that child, and now through him those same promises have been manifested out, outside Israel to the Gentiles in the persons of the wise men / kings. And so, in that child, Israel becomes what she was intended by God to be: a light to the Gentiles, as Isaiah said. The people who will spread the knowledge of God to all nations and all races. And so, for most of today, not all, but for most of us this story is our story: we Gentiles being included in the rich heritage of the Jews. You and I, new branches grafted onto that sacred root.
But there are other levels of meaning and symbolism at work here – less obvious ones – and it is these that I want us to consider this evening. In Holy Scripture, as in human life, we must always be careful to go beneath the surface of things to discover their deeper meaning. And so let us look beneath the surface of the story of the wise men and see what will disclose itself.
First of all, who were these wise men we heard about in the Gospel ? They have been given names: Gaspar, Melchior, Balthazar. But these are much, much later additions – legends – not in Scripture. The word used there is Magi and it means a wise man – yes – but most of the time it means an astrologer, sometimes even a sorcerer, a magician. And since we are told that they came from the East – Persia perhaps – this is doubtless what they were: astrologers, star-gazers, men who observed the heavens and recorded the movements of the stars. The religions and cults of the East were full of such people who searched the sky for a clue to the future or a reading of the present or a message from the gods. These three wise men saw a sign, a star, and the sign changed their lives.
Their search continued, but now it was a search on earth, not in the heavens, and it sent them on a journey. For, you see, God’s message, the future, the present, the meaning of all their ancient wisdom had indeed come to earth. It was no longer puzzling and disguised, no longer written obscurely in the heavens. Now Wisdom was alive, born in Bethlehem; the new-born child, Truth himself on earth among men.
And so . . .
This was the end of their searching;
This was the meaning of their lives.
And, St. Matthew tells us, “ they fell down and worshipped him.”
* * *
The wise men presented gifts to him. Precious things, but strange things to give to a child. Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh. Why these things ? What do they mean ?
Gold is a gift for a king, and he was a king. Gold is noble and costly, a symbol of earthly power and authority. And all authority will be given to him, the babe in the stable. Before him kings, emperors, princes will bow low and confess their nothingness. Gold is a gift for a king, and he is a king.
Gold is the prize at the end of a quest. It is the treasure which is the reward for a journey, a labor, or a search. And he – the new-born king – is the end of our quest and the final destination of our journey. He is the treasure which rewards a life of labor and of searching.
Gold is also the result of transformation. What is common and base, the ancients believed, may be transformed into gold. And he is that spiritual gold into which what is common and base and even sinful in human life may be transformed and thereby ennobled.
They gave him gold, for he is a king. They gave him gold, for he is the end of the quest. They gave him gold for he is the new Adam, who transforms humanity.
And they presented frankincense. That is a gift for a god. Not just any god, but very specifically the God of Israel. Day by day in the temple at Jerusalem incense was directed to be burned by the priests as an offering to the God of that Temple. And it could only be frankincense. That was a requirement. It was a sign of God’s presence in the Temple. It was, as well, a sign of Israel’s worship. Incense: something offered without reserve. Something offered which could not be taken back, because consumed. Unnecessary perhaps ? Only a ritual ? No. Or rather, as unnecessary or as necessary as the ritual of prayer. And it was a symbol of the prayer of God’s people as the smoke rose from its burning.
“Behold the tabernacle of God is with men’” declares St. John of Patmos. He proclaimed what the Magi discovered: the living presence of God in a stable, the child a new Temple. And they offered him frankincense, as we do, as sign of who he is – the God of Israel among us. Frankincense – a necessary, unnecessary symbol of what he deserves – our worship and our prayer.
And finally they offered him myrrh. Myrrh is bitter and acrid – pungent, not pleasant. Even today, in some places, myrrh is burned at funerals to cover up the stench of decay and decomposition. It is called the “incense of tears.” In Jesus’ time, it was thought to deaden pain and was also used in embalming the dead. He was offered myrrh by the wise men; and he would be offered myrrh again: as he hung dying on the Cross, wine mixed with myrrh was held up to him on a sponge – an act of kindness by one who watched him die. And he would be offered it yet again: in the spices which the women brought of anoint his body in the tomb. Myrrh means death.
But strangely enough, it also means kingship, for myrrh was part of the sacred oil which anointed a king in Israel. The wise men presented him with myrrh, for he would die, the child in the stable. But by his death, he would become a king. His death would vanquish all his enemies – sin, evil, hatred, death itself. his death would be a victory and his anointing as our King.
Those are the gifts which the Magi gave the child. Gold and frankincense and myrrh. Are we as wise and they were ? Do we give him such gifts. Do you ? Do I ?
Do we give him gold ? That is, what is rare, costly and noble in our lives. Or do we begrudge him only a part ( and at that, only a small part ) of what we value. His rule is gracious, and we will make us kingly, noble like himself. Do we give him a gift fit for a king. They did.
Do we give him frankincense ? That is, do we acknowledge him and worship him as our Lord and God ? In that child we may discover the one who created the earth, all heavens, and the stars. He is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, the meaning, truth, and wisdom of all that is. Do we seek out his presence among us and give him a gift fit for God ? They did.
And do we bring him myrrh ? His death is to be honored. It was a death died for each of us. The pain, the suffering, the agony was for me, for you. Has this touched our hearts ? Have we brought him myrrh, our tears, to honor his death.
That death on the Cross was a triumph. Through it sin, evil, selfishness, death itself, the devil – though it / in it all these things were given an end. Have we died that death in ourselves ? Have we found in his death that kingly triumph over all those his enemies and ours. Have we brought him myrrh for death and for kingship ? They did.
And finally, have we looked for his star, his sign ? The wise men searched the heavens and embarked on a hard journey. Our is an easier task: to look beneath the surface of our lives and search there for signs of his presence and his love. Have we ? Do we ? Or are we too complacent ? Too satisfied ( self-satisfied ) to look within and search ?
Dear Christian people, those are all questions posed by the gifts given by the wise men, and they call for answer. The magi looked and they saw a star. And – yes – if we look within, we too will see a sign. The bright and shining star of his presence will manifest itself to the eyes of our soul, for he is there in our lives. He dwells in us as we dwell in him. He is there as he promised he would be, and we may give him our gifts. If we give him what is gold in our lives, then he will be our king and the end of our quest, and he will transform us into gold more costly, noble and precious. Spiritual gold – what we were created to be.
And if we give him frankincense and worship him as God and Lord, he will be present with us here and now. All time is his. He will tabernacle with us , his people, and he will never leave us.
And if we bring him myrrh and honor him in death and die ourselves in him, then he will give us the precious gift of his own death – which is his kingly triumph – and anointing us with his death, he will make us kings as well, so that in our dying we shall never die.