We celebrated the feast of the Epiphany this Sunday. One of the most colorful tales in all the Gospels – really, a fairy tale, the most exciting Nativity narrative. Who doesn’t like a fairy tale?
In the Gospel of Matthew, three magi – variously translated as kings and wise men from the Orient – come to Bethlehem following a star, looking for the newborn Messiah. They come bearing praise and gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And they worship the child.
This story has no historical basis. We know very little of the circumstances under which Jesus was born, but there is almost zero chance that it happened factually the way the author of Matthew described, yet this narrative is one of our most meaningful myths, and with its commemoration we end the season of Christmas. Why? What’s so significant about three foreigners visiting the cradle of a child?
I think, it’s the relevance of the story to us. You and me. This myth of Christ is full of symbolism that speaks deliberately to all peoples and all times. It’s universal.
If you’ve been to a Catholic church on Epiphany or looked at the readings on this day, you might have noticed what precedes the Gospel. First, Isaiah declares Israel a light to the nations. Then, Paul implores his fellow Christians, at that time mostly Jewish, to understand that Gentiles are co-heirs, co-partners in Christ’s promise through the Gospel, that they too are the body of Christ. Then we open the Gospel of Matthew and read about three Gentiles who showed up at Joseph and Mary’s door, to greet the Christ still new in the world, before the Hebrew world knew anything about him. Mind you, there are no shepherds in this picture and no manger – those are from the Gospel of Luke, and it’s a different myth. We put together Nativity scenes for Advent, and we join all things together — angels, shepherds, kings, and hay — but the authors of Luke and Matthew tell two incompatible stories, and in Matthew, the magi from the East are the only ones who know the great, earth-shattering secret: the Messiah has come.
Fr. Fran, my parish priest, made it a point in his homily to emphasize the magi’s willingness to follow God’s direction – the star that led them to Bethlehem – even though they weren’t Jewish, even though they didn’t know God. “They were not waiting for the Messiah,” he said. It’s a good point about openness of the heart, but it’s not entirely correct. The magi, you see, were not some vague wise men, and they were not kings. When in our Nativity scenes we make one of them African and another Asian, we extend a laudable gesture to diversity, but we distort the internal consistency of the narrative. Because “magi” were Persian. It is the word that designated Zoroastrian priests: the carriers of an ancient tradition that worshipped one good god Ahura Mazda, had profound influence on Judaism, and yes, waited for a messiah to arrive, a messiah called Saoshyant. The author of Matthew wasn’t painting a picture of heathen conversion. He was saying that the whole world that praised the Good would recognize this child as the Savior – and here, wise Gentiles were first on the scene. Isaiah’s “light to the nations” had finally shone, and the wise Gentiles saw it, and they came.
What my students and I find entertaining is to take apart the list of gifts the magi brought to the cradle. If the story were factual, I suspect we’d have a very different list: some 1st century equivalent of diapers, onesies, or a tricycle, you know? But other than gold, their gifts are useless. Worse than that, myrrh is downright creepy. It was used in the ancient near east to embalm dead bodies and sometimes as a pain-reliever. What kind of message does it send to a newborn?
A message. That’s exactly what it is: the gifts, of course, are symbolic, when taken together, and the message is from the author of Matthew, for us, about the Christ. It’s a preview. Gold, the symbol of royalty; frankincense that was used in the Temple during holy rituals; myrrh that symbolized mortality and suffering. The author of Matthew in one sentence presents the whole of the Gospel: behold Christ the King, Christ the High Priest, Christ the Son of Man, whose lot is to suffer and die. It’s all here. The wise men know. But the story is not over.
This narrative started with a statement about universality, about ultimate reach, and it will go there again, but it proceeds from outside inward. As happens so often in life, the magi unwittingly bring danger to the doorstep of the holy family. In their naïveté, while searching for Joseph and Mary’s home, they stop to ask for directions at the palace of the reigning king, Herod, and tell him of the “newborn king,” which Herod, naturally, perceives as a threat to his throne. Were they to return, as Herod has asked them, and reveal the child’s location, Matthew’s would be a very short Gospel. But then, something happens that I find maybe the most important part of the whole story.
This part of the story takes almost no space. It’s one sentence. People often gloss over it. And yet, this is the part that, I feel, speaks to humanity beyond Christianity, the reason we wrap up the Christmas season with the Epiphany. I think, this one sentence encapsulates the meaning of Christmas. “Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod,” the Gospel says, “they returned to their country by a different route.”
Dreams were big in the ancient Hebrew culture, in the Bible. Dreams were seen as a way for God to communicate insights, instructions. Revelations. Dreams were the zone of consciousness where the human and the divine could mingle freely. The biblical culture feels that if we have profound wisdom to access, wisdom we might find difficult to grasp rationally, wisdom we might find too frightening to formulate consciously, it will come to us in a dream. And then, upon waking, we will need wisdom and courage enough only to discern if what we know is real and to follow God’s voice. In the Bible, God comes to Abraham in a dream and to more than one Joseph. God wrestles Jacob. When God speaks to the magi, He tells them to change their plans.
This is the part I find so irresistible, so worthy of becoming the final chord for the Christmas season: after the miraculous anticipation of Advent, where having and waiting weave into a continuous sacrament; after the triumphant arrival of Christmas so always unexpectedly gentle; after paying tender homage to Mary and to the Holy Family, what is it we leave with? How are we richer? How are we better? The gifts have been exchanged, the songs have been sung, the tribute has been paid. Christ is here – but then, He’s always here. Are we empty-handed, again, to go home from the cradle?
This is the beginning of ordinary time, but we are not empty-handed. Like the magi, we have followed the star and encountered the Divine in its most vulnerable humanity. We can gift him and endanger him, but all we need do to know better is listen. The magi encountered the Christ and became wiser. And they returned home by a different route.
They encountered the Christ, and the Christ changed them. This is conversion, not the name of the Messiah, not even the awareness of the Messiah. The magi discerned something in the universe that was mystery and call, and they followed the light, and there, at the source of the light they found a new beginning – a child, with all the miraculous, unlimited potential for kingship, for priesthood, for suffering and death a child carries. For triumph over death. And they found wisdom. And they found conversion. And they returned to their lives changed, different. Never to be the same, they walked now a different path. As do we all.
We don’t always need enormous, life-altering changes. Sometimes they are tiny discoveries. Sometimes, bits of courage. Sometimes, specs of joy. Conversion is renewal. And that, really, is all I can wish for any of us at the end of this Christmas season.