Today marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas, which began on December 25th and ends on January 5th. Tomorrow, we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ. The lectionary reading for the Feast focuses on the visit of the Magi to worship the Lord by bringing him gifts (Matthew 2:1-12). Indeed, many of our Eastern brethren within the universal Church will celebrate the next couple of days by exchanging gifts with one another.
Epiphany is a season of “revealing” within the Church where the person and nature of Jesus Christ is revealed more fully. On the evening of his birth, Jewish shepherds came to worship him as their Savior. Now, on this day we remember the visit of the Magi to worship him as well.
Who are the Magi?
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 ancient Greek historian Herodotus, in his Histories (written about 440 BC), says that the Magi were 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. So, the Magi are “gentiles,” part of the nations (that is, they are not descended from Abraham). And the Magi are also astrologers who studied the stars for signs.
So, when the Magi go to Herod to ask him where they may find the king of the Jews they say that they “saw his star when it rose.” That is, they saw some heavenly event in the sky which 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 through the centuries.
To understand this, it is helpful to review some ancient history. Centuries before Jesus’ birth, the empire of Babylon had conquered Judah and took 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, from 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 Messiah, the Savior, has come to save all people – both Jews and Gentiles – and the Magi have come to worship him as did the Jewish shepherds before them. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the one anointed to bring salvation to all people and uniting all people in himself.
The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh which the Magi bring are also significant.
Jesus is the legitimate king; in fact the King of Kings. He is of the line of David. So, the Magi bring him gifts of gold, a present appropriate for a king.
However, 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, all of this “revealing” about the person and nature of Jesus 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 visit of the Magi 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 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 reveals to the gentiles what God is doing for all of 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 Abraham or Jacob, are yet drawn into the Church through faith. They come to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, the king of all creation.
The Church’s mission is to continue this witness to Christ so that all people may know him. It is a mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ himself. In Matthew 28, Jesus 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).
That is to say, “bring all nations into God’s nation, the Church Israel, through Word and Sacrament,” because through these means Christ is present as the instrument of God’s grace given to sinners to reconcile us to God. It is for this reason that we often say that 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, the Church Israel. He had 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. 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. We begin to get glimpses of this during the season of Epiphany in the Church.
(Image is La adoración de los Magos – By Anonymous – National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41106698)