Introduction and Call to Worship
With the example of the Magi, and the promise shared with all nations and all creation, we come together today as worshippers of the one who came to bring light and praise into our world.
First Reading Isaiah 60:1-6
The prophet foretells a better time, for the light of a new generation, for all the earth and peoples, nations and rulers, has come. For what purpose? To proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Second Reading Ephesians 3:1-12
God’s commission of grace, the revelation of the mystery, has come to this new generation by the Holy Spirit. Now we are all heirs, all members of the same body, all sharers in God’s promise of new life.
Gospel Matthew 2:1-12
The coming of Gentile Magi, the direction of the star, the gifts for the Messiah: all for the worship of the newborn king. Yet the clash between light and dark, praise and fear, foreshadow the end of the Gospel even in its beginning.
HOMILY “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” (Matthew 2:10)
Christianity is perhaps a victim of its own success. Biblical stories and narratives have formed part of our Western cultures for centuries, even if their origins have been lost to some people. None more so than the traditional view of the nativity – Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, Shepherds, Angels and, of course, the “Wise Men” with their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
We know very little about the Wise Men. They are referred to only in Matthew’s Gospel and the language changes depending on the translation of the Bible you are using. The original Greek calls them “Magi” and may refer to a specific priestly caste from Persia (modern day Iran) that had expertise in astronomy.
Tradition has given us names – Balthasar, often depicted as the King of Arabia; Melchior as King of Persia and Gaspar (Casper), King of India. Other traditions see them as coming from Pakistan, Ethiopia, China and Armenia.
One Syriac text suggests the Magi were monk-like mystics from Shir (possibly China). They were descended from Seth, third son of Adam, and guardians to a prophecy regarding a star of “indescribable brightness” that would descend into God in human form.
Another suggestion is that it took two years for the Wise Men to reach Bethlehem (hence King Herod seeking to destroy all innocents of two years and younger).
Fascinating though these theories and traditions may be, they miss the point Matthew may have been making in his Gospel. Instead of focusing on who and how, we need to think about why….
Early Christian writers, including Ignatius of Antioch, believed the Gospel writer was highlighting the conversion of Mystics, with their superstitions, to follow the True Light. They note that it was pagan outsiders that recognised and worshipped God incarnate whilst the Jewish leaders sought to destroy him. Christ is revealed to the apparently ignorant and foolish Magi whilst the educated Jewish hierarchy remained in ignorance.
By following the star, the Magi clearly believed something profound was to happen. They were ready to recognise the Christ-child as worthy of honour, prostrating themselves and giving homage. We can see this had such a profound effect on them that they risked their own lives in disobeying King Herod and not revealing the location of Jesus.
The final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” allows us to imagine….
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The Magi did not know where the star would lead them, there was no road-map for them. We are all at different stages of a similar journey in our faith. We’ll all take a slightly different road, even if the desire “to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3.10) is our ambition. Like the Magi we will face uncertainty, doubts creeping in, and the journey may seem unbearably long.
The Magi should encourage us in our faith. If we focus only on what is important – our relationship with God – we can allow ourselves to be curious, always striving to learn more and develop that relationship. In accepting the “unease” of T.S. Eliot’s poem, we can grow to be worthy disciples of Christ.