In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
This reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew is suited to the Epiphany, which occurs on Jan 6. This is one of those fews years where there is a Second Sunday in Christmastide, so it is fitting that we look at this event.
As we heard in the Gospel today, three wise men came from the East to find the new born king. We three kings of Orient are…
Who were these wise men? The Greek word that is translated here as wise men, is “Magoi” which became the English word “Magi.” This indicates that the men were Zoroastrians.
That word can be translated as “magician” in other places, like the Acts of the Apostles, where a certain magician contended against Paul while he was on the island of Cyprus. He was also called a Jewish false prophet.
So while we have this rather positive view of the wise men, the Magi, who followed the star in the East to see the new born king, we have this rather negative view of other magi who are sorcerers and false prophets.
To me it says that our Father in heaven will use anyone who is open to being led by the Holy Spirit.
It is also said that these wise men were astrologers, those who could read the signs in the stars and the planets. Their assistants who actually tracked the movement of the stars for them were known as the astronomers. It’s funny how their craft, astronomy, became a science to be studied, while the astrologers have faded into a cult following.
More modern astronomers have tried to explain that star. It could have been a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus and some star. Some astronomy apps can be programed to specific dates where you can actually seen the conjunction of the stars and planets.
Whether or not the star existed is not important, at least not to Matthew.
We know that Matthew was a Jew and a Tax Collector. He was probably despised by other Jews because he would have been seen as a Roman collaborator, who may have taken more taxes than were due and kept the rest. It was certainly the M. O. of other tax collectors.
Matthew had been forgiven much, and so he loved much. To be true to his roots, Matthew was careful to show how Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies of the coming Messiah.
The Star of Bethlehem was the fulfillment of this prophecy from the book of Numbers:
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel,
And batter the brow of Moab,
And destroy all the sons of tumult
This prophecy refers to a king who will rise up and destroy the enemies of the Jews. You can see why Jesus was a disappointment to those who expected a warrior to come and fight their battles and vanquish the Romans.
This prophecy from Micah was another one to be fulfilled:
But you, O Bethlehem Eph’rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
The wise men, the Magi, had no doubt studied the Hebrew scriptures, and knew of these prophecies. Their reading of the stars told them a king of Israel was born, and they needed to see this king and pay their respects.
They brought gifts, gold for a king, frankincense for a high priest, and myrrh, which is sometimes associated with death because of its use to prepare a body for burial.
Myrrh comes from a Aramaic word that means “bitter,” and is used in incense to mask certain smells, and it can be used in medicine as well. Perhaps there was more than one reason for the gift of Myrrh, as it also has healing properties.
The wise men were gentiles, not Jewish, yet we see that these outsiders recognize who Jesus is, while the Jews who should have recognized him, did not. This is a recurring theme in this Gospel.
Near the end of the Gospel, Matthew writes that the centurion, another outsider, recognized Jesus, when he said, “Truly this was the Son of God.”
At Epiphany, we commemorate the unveiling, the showing, of Jesus to the world. This is an important event in the history of salvation, as it was this recognition of Christ as Messiah, the Son of God, as the one who came to show us the way to the Father.
Many times I have heard that we should decide what gifts to give to Jesus, whether it be from our time, our talent, or our treasures. Instead, think about the gifts as being given to you.
First, you are the Church, the Body of Christ, and heirs of the eternal kingdom. The gold is for you, because you are royalty.
Second, you are of the priesthood of all believers. The sacrifice of Christ is made present among us at the altar. Present yourself as a living sacrifice to God.
The Frankincense is for you, to offer prayers and sacrifices to God. As the Body of Christ, you are agents of his healing grace. The Myrrh is to honor your role in the healing of the sick.
The Spirit of Christ is within you, and he is able to minister through you. You have the same ministry as every Christian. That ministry is to care for the poor and needy, to visit the sick in their affliction, and to visit those in prison, and to tell others about your faith walk.
Don’t worry if you feel inadequate for the task. It is the Spirit of Christ who enables your ministry wherever you are. It is the Spirit who will give you the words to say.
Remember that you are ministers of the gospel who will use the gifts given to you to help others.
Receive the gifts of God for the people of God. Amen.