Today is the feast of the Epiphany, a day that celebrates the visitation of the wise men, or Magi, bearing gifts to the Christ child. It is also the beginning of a new liturgical season, one marked by a search for new epiphanies or insights that help us on our spiritual journey. It is also the day when those who continue to celebrate Christmas finally take down the tree and the Christmas ornaments and sadly put them away for another year.
In the Epiphany story, there are wise men coming their homelands far to the east. The word Magi not only means “wise man” but also “astrologer,” which gives them a reason to be following an unusual star that has led them for miles to where the baby was, Normally, we make it part of our Christmas play, although some churches and Sunday schools will save this part of the story for its own separate presentation.
The wise men represent wisdom and a desire to increase their understanding. They also represent a kind of royalty because court astrologers were very highly sought in royal courts, and many decisions relied primarily on the insights brought to the king by his court astrologers. These were highly selected men, and possibly women, although none are mentioned, who had studied the stars since childhood and who were able to interpret various things using the position of the stars and constellations. A lot of people today still consult astrologers for everything from when their true prince will come for them to whether they should study mathematics or poetry, or even whether they should take a trip at a certain time or not. One of the interesting parts of many newspapers is the astrology column, which people read faithfully and sometimes follow the given advice. It is believed that the stars can tell us what we need to know, if we read them correctly.
We believe there were three magi, not named in the gospel, but who have been given the names Melchior, Baltazar, and Caspar. Maybe there were three, maybe there were ten, or possibly only one or two. We just do not know. We use the number three because of the gifts that were brought, gifts that were symbols as well as somewhat practical items. Their symbolic meaning, however, is probably of more importance to us in the story then perhaps their actual usage.
One gift was gold. Now that was a very practical gift, one which would be needed when Joseph answered the dream from the Angel about rushing away from where they were because Herod was planning to kill all the boy babies of a certain age. Mary and Joseph needed had to move quickly to save his life, so the gold would come in extremely handy until Joseph could find work and earn a living for his small family. The frankincense was a key component of the incense used in rituals as both a purification symbol and as a symbol of prayer rising to the heavens with the smoke. It was a symbol of sanctity and, probably, a recognition of the sanctity of this child to whom this this gift was presented.
Myrrh was a stranger gift because it was traditionally used in the preparation of a dead body for burial. It offered a form of preservation, but also a cleansing and help to disguise some of the less favorable scents that accompany death. It is usually accepted that this gift was a foretelling of Jesus’s death, a rather strange gift for a new a young child, but perhaps not. Young children in those days have a high mortality rate. Luckily, Jesus did not need the myrrh at that time in his life, nor did he have a use for it at the end of his life.
I often wonder if one or more magi showed up at my door on a given day, why would they be there and what would they be bringing? Gold is always useful, especially among those of us who have a very real lack of it. It would be practical, but would it be the most important thing we could be given? Sanctity might be a good gift. it would be a nice scent, and useful for symbolic cleansing, which, I am sure, I need daily and I suspect others do as well. Myrrh might be a good gift, given my age and my health, but I think there are other gifts that might be a little more appropriate. I would really like to receive wisdom, not just the wisdom of the world and how to make money, create my own gold as it were, but wisdom of truly important things like peace, serenity, knowledge, compassion, understanding, and other such things. Now those would be handy. I think if I had that gift of wisdom I could work well in this world and create perhaps a better world for people around me, which could spread outwards much like the ripples in a pond.
I like to think that each of us is born with a special gift from God at the time of our birth. Salvation would be a gift many would choose, and that is assured to us in our creeds and in our baptismal vows and encouraged by our sermons and bit and scriptural readings about the requirement for us to believe. I could choose grace, which I think would be a perfectly wonderful gift, and one which, I also believe, God has given all of us at the time of our birth, it is just that many of us do not realize it until much later in life, if ever. Grace is there for us to accept and all we must do is believe it. That would be a very good gift for us to learn to accept.
The other thing I wonder is if we were one of the Magi and were bringing a gift to the Christ child, what gift could we offer? We could offer ourselves, which is a great gift; however, the problem with giving ourselves, is that many of us want to take it back almost immediately. Not everybody, mind you, but many of us would want to take it back periodically. So, what else could we bring?
There are some who have the gift of hospitality, and a wonderful gift that is, whether it is extending hospitality from their home, or their church, or in the civic groups to which they belong. The gift of hospitality often gives them the opportunity to show the teachings of Jesus rather than simply preaching them. Some might offer the gift of education, not only teaching spiritual values, but also human values that teach that all people are deserving of respect and, if not love, at least respect for their being children of God every bit as much as we ourselves are. There are some who make it extremely difficult for us to think of them in this way, but Jesus never said this was going to be easy. There is the gift of service, of sanctity, of constancy, and other things that would make this world more of the kingdom place than we can currently claim.
This week I think I’m going to concentrate on gifts — gifts that I was given at birth that maybe I have not developed as much as I could, and gifts that I can give, whether directly to Jesus or to God’s people who surround me. In either event, it is going to require a few epiphanies, a few new insights, and a little bit of wisdom added like salt in an almost perfect dish. I really think I’m going to work on this this week.
Epiphany is a great season for this kind of thought. Maybe you’d like to join me in this quest? It is free, and it is rewarding.
Image: By Anonymous (Utrecht) (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons