Last Sunday in our readings we had Jesus’ presentation at the temple and the joy that that gave the faithful Simeon and Anna who encountered him. We have there the Song of Simeon where Simeon held the baby Jesus in his arms and praised him as a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory for God’s people Israel. What Simeon says is significant. “Gentiles” means nations, and there are really two groups of people in the world. There is God’s nation, the Church Israel, and then there is everyone else who is not part of the Church, who are called the gentiles or nations.
God’s desire is that all nations come to him through the light of Christ and therefore become part of Israel, the Church which is centered around Jesus Christ. Recall that the Old Testament Church looked forward to Christ’s advent, both the incarnation and the future judgement, and the New Testament Church looks both back at his incarnation as well as forward to his return; we, in the Church, all share the same faith that God’s promises are ultimately fulfilled in Christ.
With that in mind, in today’s Epiphany readings we see the nations, or gentiles, being called to the light of Christ. In Isaiah 60:1-6 we hear the Lord’s promise that the light will come, the glory of the Lord will arise, and the nations shall see this light and come with gold and frankincense, gifts given to kings and priests. And then in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12) we see the beginning of the fulfillment of this promise as we see the nations coming to the Lord and bringing him gifts.
Matthew says that wise men from the east came to Jerusalem to worship the newborn king of the Jews. These wise men are called Magi in the original Greek. The term Magi refers to a class of people who originally lived in the region of Media which later became part of the Persian empire, which is basically present-day Iran (this according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus). They are gentiles, part of the nations. And the Magi were also astrologers who studied the stars for signs.
So when the Magi go to King Herod to ask him where they may find the “king of the Jews” they say that they “saw his star when it rose.” They saw some heavenly event in the sky that they interpreted to be the sign that the promised Messiah or Christ, the king of the Jews, had been born. They were likely acquainted with these prophecies, because of the mingling of the Persians and Jews for centuries.
In the 6th century BC, the empire of Babylon had conquered Judah and taken most of its people into captivity in Babylon. Later, the Persian empire conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return home. However, some remained in Babylon while others moved to the Persian homeland itself. In fact, the book of Esther in the Old Testament takes place primarily in Persia and recounts the lives of the Jews living under Persian rule.
So, the Magi, as astrologers in the east (in the lands of the former Persian empire) had come into contact with the people of Judah and their Messianic hopes. And now the Magi have seen the heavenly sign, a star that has arisen, that has announced that these hopes have been fulfilled. The Christ has come to save all people, and the Magi have come to worship him.
And there’s something ironic in their discussion with Herod. They come to Herod, called “the Great,” to ask him where they may find the king of the Jews. This must have been pretty insulting to Herod, as he considered himself the king of the Jews. With Roman support, he ruled over the region of Judea – the former lands of Judah – and the city of Jerusalem. He had palaces and had rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. He had earthly authority in the area. He wasn’t Jewish, though. He was Idumaen, meaning that he was descended from the people called the Edomites.
You remember the brothers Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament? Jacob was renamed Israel and become the father of the people Israel; Judah, one of his sons, is the namesake of the region of Judaea where the tribe of Judah lived. That’s also how we get the name “Jew;” it refers to the people of Judaea. Properly speaking, the word Jew only came to describe the people of Judah/Judaea during and after the Babylonian captivity.
Esau’s descendants were called the Edomites, because Edom means “red” and Esau had red hair, which was – and still is, to some extent – a novelty. The Edomites lived south of the people of Judah.
So, Herod is not from the line of Judah, he is from the line of Esau. This also means, of course, that Herod is not from the line of King David. Thus, he is not a legitimate king of the Jews, even though he holds power in the area. Herod was very sensitive about this and had even married a Jewish woman in an effort to try to increase his legitimacy; he also killed any potential rivals for the throne.
So, when the Magi ask him where they may find the king of the Jews, the question hits Herod at a tender point. He’s supposed to be the king, so he was troubled and his people were troubled that perhaps a usurper to the throne had been born, a baby with a real, legitimate claim to be king – a baby born of the line of king David who might replace Herod.
This is why Herod asks the Magi when they first saw the star. He wants to know the approximate age of the boy who was born so that he can find him and have him killed. Immediately after the reading for today, Herod attempts just this. He has all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and under killed. Herod had done things like this before, even having family members killed when he thought they might try to take away his throne. But, he fails to kill Jesus, because both the Magi and Joseph were warned; so the Magi did not return to Herod, and Joseph took Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt to wait for Herod to die.
A little historical fact is that Herod died in 4 BC, shortly after this incident. This means that Jesus was likely born around 6 or 5 BC, since Herod targeted children up to two years old based upon what the Magi had told him about when they had first seen the star. This also means that the typical nativity scenes we see at Christmas are not really historically accurate. The shepherds saw Jesus on the night of his birth, while the Magi saw Jesus later, when he was nearly two years old.
However, the typical nativity scene does have something more important correct, because in these two events – the worship of the shepherds and the worship of the Magi – we see the coming together of the nations with the people Israel. The shepherds were part of the people of Israel. They came to worship the Christ. Now, the Magi, guided by the star, have also arrived to worship the Christ, the King of Kings. God is drawing together all people into His Church Israel which is centered around the fulfilled promise of the Christ. This baby Jesus is the Lord’s Christ, the anointed one. He is anointed to bring salvation to all people, uniting all people in himself. So, in the nativity we see Jews and Gentiles being drawn to the light of Christ.
He is also the legitimate king. He is of the line of David. So, the Magi bring him gifts of gold, a present appropriate for a king. But, Jesus is more than a king, he is also a priest. In fact, he is the great High Priest, the one who intercedes for us before his Father. So, the Magi bring him gifts of frankincense, a present appropriate for a priest, because priests burned incense during worship in the temple.
However, Jesus is no mere earthly priest, he offers up his own sinless body and blood as the sacrifice which atones for our sins and reconciles us to God. So, the Magi bring him myrrh, which was an ointment used to put on the dead to prepare them for burial. Later, when Jesus was dying on the cross someone offered him a mixture of myrrh and wine. And after Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus brought myrrh to anoint Jesus’ body for burial.
So, Christ’s identity and future work is prefigured in the gifts given by the Magi, these gentiles from the east. Gold is for the king, frankincense is for the priest, and myrrh is for the sacrificial body. The Magi give gifts appropriate to a priestly king who would die to redeem his people from the power of sin, death, and the devil.
We also see in this event something else. We see what the true purpose of Israel was and is. God did not call together a people for Himself who would hoard and keep His blessings or to wall themselves off from the rest of the world. The purpose of Israel was not just to be God’s people and leave the nations, the gentiles, in their sin and death. Rather, the purpose of Israel was to be the beacon through which the light of God’s grace through Christ would shine out onto all nations.
Israel is God’s advance guard, in a sense. It is the steward of God’s mysteries; the people who have God’s promises and believe them and who are called to be witnesses to all nations of what God is doing in Christ to redeem this fallen world. Israel is the Church, the people of God, His nation, which shows the gentiles what God is doing for us through Christ. In the Church we have restoration and reconciliation to God and each other through Jesus Christ, and this restoration and reconciliation is meant for the whole world. So, the Church is called to bear witness to Christ to draw the nations into the Church.
We see this in the visit of the Magi, who, although they are gentiles and are not descended from Jacob, are yet drawn into the Church through faith. They come to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, the king of the Jews and the king of all creation. And, we see faithful Mary, allowing these gentiles to come into her home to worship her son. Likewise, we see in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians the continued ministry of outreach to the nations (Ephesians 3:1-12). Paul took the light of Christ out to the nations in order to reveal to them the mystery of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. Paul is a part of the Church, making known to the gentiles, those not part of the Church, what God has done for us through Jesus Christ in order to draw them into the Church.
And the Church today continues this calling and mission, because it is a mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ himself. In Matthew 28, he commissioned his Church, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:1-20).
It is for this reason that we say we confess the Apostolic faith, because our faith in Christ has been handed down to us for generations, through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. And all these generations go back through the Apostles to Christ himself, who is the Lord incarnate, the one through whom God reveals Himself to us. He has brought us, who were once of the nations, into His nation; He has brought us out of darkness into his light.
So, in Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, God is reconciling the whole world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Christ died for the sins of all people, this priestly king who offered up his own body and blood as the sacrifice. And the Church carries on the Apostolic witness to Christ to reveal him to the nations as the one, the only one, in whom we have salvation. In this way, we are all made one body in Christ Jesus our Lord through the light of the Gospel. We are made one people of God by the grace of God given us through Jesus Christ. Amen.
(Image: The Adoration of the Magi. By Jan de Bray – Sphinx art, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55913640.