Last night my wife and I were preparing to pack away the Christmas decorations for another year, and once again we were completely baffled as to how we were supposed to fit a large sprawling tree into such a seemingly small box.
As we were taking down the Christmas cards which we had received, I paused and looked at one in particular- a scene of the Magi. One star dominates the sky as they arrive on the crest of the hill overlooking Bethlehem. The journey is almost over. It’s been a long trip from a country far away in the east. There have been dangers along the way and now they are at the town of Jesus’ birth.
In the calendar of some churches, the Feast of the Epiphany (the manifestation of the Christ child to the whole world) is celebrated on January 6th, following the twelve days of Christmas. Although Christmas and Epiphany are celebrated closely together in our modern calendar, there are a number of indications that suggest that these foreign travelers arrived quite some time after Jesus’ birth in the stable. In the Gospel of Matthew where the account of this visit is found, Jesus is no longer referred to as a little baby, and the Magi visit the family in a house. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with the wise men being there with the shepherds in the stable in your nativity scene, and that, with the Feast of the Epiphany, we get to look closer at who these mysterious visitors were, and to remember why their visit was so important.
I say mysterious visitors, because we don’t actually know very much about them. Although traditionally depicted as being in a group of three, we don’t know how many travelers there were in that group. We don’t know exactly where they came from, and although we do know that they were certainly gentile astronomers who were familiar with the Hebrew scriptures, we don’t know much more.
One of the details that Matthew does give us is that they arrived with special gifts for this new king born in the least likely of circumstances: “They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.”
Gold, frankincense and myrrh—what strange gifts for a new born child. A female biblical scholar recently commenting on these gifts suggested that these men weren’t all that wise after all. If the eastern visitors had been wise women the baby Jesus would have received sensible gifts—baby food, diapers and clothes to replace the swaddling cloths, perhaps even a proper baby’s crib—not a useless lump of gold and two bottles of perfume. Not the wisest gifts perhaps, but certainly symbolic.
Gold has great value; frankincense is a perfume; and myrrh is a common anointing oil. The gifts have symbolic significance in light of the identity of the baby to whom they are given. Gold is a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (used for incense) is a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) is a symbol of death. These gifts are effective symbolic reminders to us that the significance of Jesus is not simply found in his birth, but in what will happen during his life, death and resurrection.
Perhaps that’s why looking closer at the story of the wise men visiting Jesus is important, so that we remember that, although at Christmas we celebrate the story of Jesus, the story goes on. For another year the Christmas tree will hide in its box. It will be another year now before we sing carols again and drink egg-nog, but as the gifts of the wise men remind us, the story of Jesus continues.