Epiphany of Our Lord, Year C 2018
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
The visitation of the magi, which we observe today on the Feast of the Epiphany, is developed into one of the more odd traditions surrounding Christmastide. I say that because it has grown into what we think of today as the ‘three kings’ or ‘wise men’ which we even have names for. But if you look at the handy little insert in your bulletins, you can see that Matthew (and Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions them) does not in fact tell us how many there were or what their names are. If we look deeper into the traditions surrounding this story globally we find in some other Christian traditions the magi depicted as being up to twelve in number. In more recent tradition, and by more recent I mean now and the 5th century, we have landed on three simply because of the three gifts that are brought for Jesus. The names we use, Melchior king of Persia, Caspar king of India, and Balthasar king of Arabia, come from manuscripts written between the 6th and 9th centuries. All of this we fold into our traditions, in marking lintels with initials and numbers as an Epiphany blessing on any dwelling place, in all sorts of cultural celebrations, and embrace this understanding that these strangers, gentiles from faraway lands, came to pay homage to this king of kings. Also a note about timing. Matthew does not say that the magi arrived the same time as the birth, or any particular amount of days after. The only speculation we have regarding when they might have arrived is based on Herod’s decree to kill all male children under the age of two. There is no telling when the author of Matthew intended for the magi to have arrived specifically.
There is certainly a sermon in pulling apart what magi are in the biblical tradition versus us calling them kings, and what that is meant to signify, but perhaps I’ll save that for next year’s Epiphany sermon. Or we could talk about the gifts and the significance of those three objects of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This story is both so vague and filled with such folklore that the imagery offers many, many opportunities to reflect on what this can or should mean to us here today. But for now, I want to stick with what Matthew writes, and in fact I want to go a little further because I think our lectionary stops a little short of where we should be today. Our reading stops at verse twelve, but I think this story continues in a very important way. In verse twelve we learn that the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who is pretending to want to pay homage to this child king, but is secretly trying to use the magi to find out where the child is. So the magi escape Herod’s plot and then we pick up with verse thirteen: “Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”
This part of the story is usually reserved for December 28th, when we commemorate the Holy Innocents, the children who died because of the rage and insanity of Herod. I think it is important to remember in our telling of the visitation of the magi because otherwise we tend to make the stories around Christmas a little too sanitized and cheery. We tend to only focus on images of a cooing baby Jesus, of shepherds and angels, and of the magi, but forget looming over all of this is the megalomaniac that is about to slaughter countless children. This part of the story is important in the Gospel of Matthew as the author seeks to build a story which showcases similarities between Jesus and Moses, a savior of the people.
This part of the narrative is also important to remind us that the birth of the Messiah, God’s incarnation in the world did not come about without suffering. It is a reminder that no matter what is going on, there is still good and evil playing out in this world. God does not promise us that evil is eradicated, or that evil people will not do evil things. God is not naïve about the evils of the world, and this story is a reminder to us that we cannot be either. This part of the story doesn’t get tied up with a shiny bow or get a place of honor at the Christmas pageant. Honestly, there isn’t any evidence that it’s even historically accurate. But that’s not what matters. What matters is how the stories we hear shape our faith and inform how we follow God.
For me, I confess I cannot read the account of the magi, the slaughter of the holy innocents, or the story of the holy family living as refugees in Egypt and not think of the four children who have died in custody at the government run internment camps our country has setup, most recently the two of the children that died near Christmas. Herod ordered the slaughter of the innocents because he feared any challenge to his power, even that of a child. Now clearly these children who have died in custody were not ordered to be executed, but how can we worship a God whose incarnate self was forced to flee and not reflect on how we personally and nationally treat those fleeing their own persecutions. The magi refuse to return to Herod and tell him where this child is that is called the king of the Jews, because they have been warned in a dream, presumably of what Herod would do to the child.
As in any biblical story, I find the practice of reflecting on where we see ourselves to be a helpful one. Are we like magi who would not reveal the hiding place of the child? Are we like the dutiful soldiers carrying out Herod’s command slaughtering the innocents? Are we like Egyptians who welcomed the holy family and kept them safe until Joseph was told in a dream they could return?
The story of the magi on a long and perilous journey is one that no doubt captures our imagination. Mystic sages from lands wrapped in colorful silk, heavy with the scent of ornately spiced foods, riding camels across untold miles of desert following an astrological sign God has placed in the sky for them. Magi bearing gifts with weighty symbols. As the church Father Origen says, “Gold, as to king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” This is a rich story that should captivate our senses. But remember that it also too is for us a reminder that though the brightest light shines in the world, so too darkness follows. We, as followers of that Light, of Jesus Christ, must not forget the whole story, must not forget the slaughter of the innocence, lest we ourselves are doomed to complacency when the world again offers evil in the face of children.