Epiphany: 6 January Matthew 2:1-12
The image of the wise men from the east kneeling before the Christ child, offering their gifts, has been an inspiring symbol of worship for countless generations: 'As with gladness men of old...' It offers the structure for prayers of adoration and liturgical movement and dance: 'We three kings of orient are ..' The story, itself, has always fascinated people because it links Jesus to the wider world of the orient and to the mysteries of the heavens.
These mysterious figures from the east reflect the aspirations of Israel that one day the wise and the powerful would come to Zion to acknowledge Yahweh. These are variations on the theme of the Gentiles sharing in the blessings of Israel. They foreshadow the expansion of the mission from Israel to the Gentiles, to be announced in Matthew 28:18-20. The image of Gentiles bringing gifts also lies behind Paul's collection made among his Gentile converts. In some sense, therefore, the magi are representative of all of us who are non Jews. It is the generous stream of a tradition of hope rooted in the prophets.
The message of the story can hardly be missed: the best of the world's wisdom acknowledges the Christ. The tradition connects also to those passages of the generous prophetic stream which speak of the nations coming together in peace, to beat their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning hooks and to share in a great feast and learn the law of God. Other strands of the tradition prefer to speaks of the Gentiles coming in submission or coming in attack, only to be minced by divine vengeance and their blood to flow in the streets. Biblical traditions often have the potential to be salvific or destructive and this remains the case. The less generous stream speaks of subjugating the Gentiles if not destroying them completely and Israel dominating its world. Tragically we are still reaping the consequences of running with options which see hope in terms of territory to occupy and from which to expel Palestinians or which generalise one aspect of the negative stream into an anti-semitic myth of world domination with terrible consequences.
Isaiah 60:6 speaks of gifts of gold and frankincense being brought to Zion. Psalm 72 speaks of kings coming bearing gifts of gold. These threads have been woven into the texture. In the retelling the motif of kingship has been added and the logic of three gifts led to our three kings and legend added their names and origins. Magi (related to 'magic') indicates they are learned people from the fabled east. Astrology was an esteemed field of expertise and these experts had pinpointed the rising of the star as pointing to the birth of a ruler in Israel.
Such legends were told of famous people, including the account of a similar embassy before the emperor Nero in 66 CE and, perhaps more relevant, before Herod the Great in 10 BCE. Astral phenomena are recorded at the births of Abraham, Pliny, Alexander the Great, Mithras and many others. A comet which appeared in 12/11 BCE in Gemini with its head towards Leo (seen by many as a symbol of Judah) might have heightened messianic expectation or, closer to the time, conjunctions of planets in 7 BCE and again in 6 BCE in the region of Pisces, traditionally associated with the Hebrews, might have done the same. Such stories were around. Matthew's version is more dramatic still: the star moves across the sky and takes up station above the place where Jesus was born. The created world is being called to bear witness to this momentous event. The heavens declare the glory of God – in yet another way.
A statement is being made about Jesus' ministry and the church: the gospel is to be taught to all nations. As in the subtle additions to his genealogy, which break the pattern by naming women who have been under a cloud, many of them with Gentile connections, so here Matthew wants us to see the deeper significance of the story. This is a celebration of inclusiveness.
The more immediate allusion, however, is to the prophecy of Balaam, who refused to cower to the murderous intentions of the evil king Balak towards Israel, prophesying instead that a star would arise from Jacob, a sceptre from Israel (Numbers 24:17; a passage applied messianically also in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs). Matthew incorporates more than the star from the story. Herod is the evil king. Jesus is Israel. Another band of threads flows from the wider story of Israel's exodus from Egypt and especially of Moses. Like Israel this child and his family would go down into Egypt and return again to the promised land. The angel's advice to Joseph to return (2:13-14, 19-20) echoes the words of God to Moses in Exodus 4:19-20. Herod's slaughter of the innocents recalls Pharaoh's slaughter of the Hebrew children. Jesus is like a new Israel, a new Moses. Such allusions incorporate a claim that God's initiative in Christ bears the same tell-tale fingerprints of God's action found in sacred writ and so have a claim to similar authority. They 'fulfil' – a favourite term for Matthew – God's intention. Those who stand in Israel's tradition are to kneel alongside the Gentile magi in acknowledging that something recognisably divine meets us here. We need to find our ways of saying this, too.
The result of the weaving together of such images is a work of art, a celebration of who Christ is. The threads link Jesus to Israel's past and to the world's hopes. As if to remind us that this is not really a story about a baby, Matthew allows us to hear also the message of the cross. There would come a time when Herod's wish would come true: fate would catch up with 'the king of the Jews' and he would hang on a cross for all to see. This robs the story of any sentimentality into which it might otherwise melt. This is a tapestry of hope and of shame, of life and of death.
When we, as it were, kneel upon it, we place ourselves in the story. It becomes our story. It becomes the story of the little people of Bethlehem, of the children for whom Rachel weeps, of the refugees who must flee their security, of rulers who are anxious and fear change, and of people like most of us, who are seen as wise and educated and are able to offer ourselves and our gifts. One of those gifts is to be able to lead people beyond a superficial reading of the story which becomes hung up on dates of stars and into its rich fabric and its lines of verisimilitude with what we know of Herod and what we know of today's world.
Epistle: Epiphany: 6 January Ephesians 3:1-12
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