“Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts.”
We don’t know who they were, these magi.
The Greek historian, Herodotus told of magi who were part of a priestly caste living among the Medes and Persians beginning as early as the sixth century before Christ. Over the centuries such magi were regarded as those who knew magic and sacred lore. Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, writes both of magi who pursued ancient science and of magi who were charlatans. Because they followed a star, it seems that they were astrologers—and Matthew’s Gospel finds no fault in that.
Over time, in part because of Matthew’s implied reference to Psalm 72 and its prayer that all kings would bring gifts and pay tribute to the ruler of Israel, the opinion developed that these gift bearers were themselves royalty. At the end of the second century, the early Christian author, Tertullian, wrote that “The East considers magi almost as kings.” And in time, because of the number of gifts listed, the number of these “kings” became three—although there are some lists from the Middle Ages that mention twelve kings and even name all of them!
But, of course, the names and number are speculation at best. We don’t know who they were, these magi.
We don’t know where they came from, these magi from the East.
“The East,” of course, is not a very precise location.
Perhaps it was Persia, which had that early connection with magi. In some early Christian art, the magi were depicted in Persian dress. As a result, when the armies of the Persian king attacked Palestine in AD 614, they destroyed many churches. But they left the Bethlehem church untouched because of a mosaic there depicting the magi as Persians.
Some people think they must have come from Babylon, as it was well known for astrology and astronomy. Or perhaps they came with a train of camels across the desert of Arabia. After all, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of a multitude of camels—a caravan through the desert—bringing gold and frankincense
But we don’t know where they came from, these magi from the East.
And we don’t know when they came, these magi from the East who arrived at that house in Bethlehem.
Chapter two of Matthew tells us only that that it was “after the birth of Jesus.” King Herod died in 4 BC and the birth of Jesus might have been two years before that. Astronomers since the time of Kepler have puzzled over what kind of event caused the “star” that they saw. Kepler himself thought it might be a supernova, although no records indicate anything like this around the time of Jesus’ birth. Halley’s comet was visible in 12-11 BC. Or perhaps a planetary conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that occurred in 7 BC was this auspicious event.
But we don’t know when they came, these magi from the East who arrived at that house in Bethlehem. They were strangers from someplace who arrived sometime—and they remain strangers, outsiders.
Matthew’s story, beloved in art and music and poetry and drama and Christmas pageants, is filled with the unknown.
And that’s OK, because our lives are like that as well.
The Christmas story in the Gospel of Matthew is not history—it is theology. And in all its uncertainty, it comes to our uncertain lives in these uncertain times.
Look at the unknown travelers. What we do know is this—the Magi offered gifts. About that, Matthew is quite specific: “Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Over centuries of biblical interpretation specific meanings have been attached to these gifts: gold for a king, frankincense for a god, myrrh for one who would die. But it is likely that Matthew was simply trying to say that the one these magi sought and found was worthy of gifts.
What I’ve missed over the decades of first hearing then reading then preaching about this story and these gifts is what happens right before the giving. “They knelt down and paid him homage.” Thomas Troeger, who teaches at Yale Divinity School says that this phrase is “far more important than whether there were three magi bearing three gifts. Paying homage to Christ gives the story its purpose, its direction, and its culmination.”[i]
Indeed, when the magi arrive in Jerusalem, they announce that the reason for their journey from the east is that they might pay homage to this child when they find him. The Greek word here suggests the very physical act of lying prostrate before royalty. And when they finally find the child Jesus in that house in Bethlehem, this is the very first thing they do. Only after, as Troeger says, only after they have given themselves completely to Christ, do they offer their gifts.
So he points out: “The order of actions, homage first and gifts second, is significant. Gift giving can be a way of controlling others. If the first thing the magi do is present their gifts, then it might seem that they are in command of the situation. There they would stand with precious goods in their outstretched hands. They would appear like rulers presenting treasures to each other on a state occasion while meeting in the middle of a ceremonial room, each of them on their feet and facing the other, in order to indicate their parity with one another. That is not the case with the magi. They express their relationship to Christ by kneeling and homage to him. First, homage. First, worship. First, giving themselves…Then, offering their gifts.”
The One found in Bethlehem is the One who gives life and calls forth wonder and our own gifts—the best that we have, the best that we are, the best that is in our control, the best that is in us. We empty our treasure chests and, in our emptiness, discover that this is the One who comes to us as a gift.
We give because we need to give. We give because we need to offer ourselves and our substance to the God who comes to us in Jesus. And suddenly we see it: Our gifts are not given to the needy. Our gifts come from the needy—from you and me.
Giving generously we meet our needs.
Giving wisely, we meet our own needs.
We give. And we, the needy receive, this day and every day, not certainty, but revelation—a making known to us of that which we can’t think through or reason out. The eyes of faith have seen and the ears of hope have heard what eyes have not seen and ears have not heard: God is with us—not just in the wonder and beauty of Christmas but also when the lights have come down, the tree has been thrown out or packed away and the angels have returned into the heavens. In all our days and nights, in our living and in our dying, in our returning and starting over God is with us.
So we can be with one another, seeking to love as we have been loved. We can be with the world, seeking to bring healing to our city, our nation. We can even—and sometimes this is the most difficult—we can even be with ourselves in stillness, in acceptance, in love. Because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, we can be at peace in our own skin.
In the coming weeks, in education, in worship, we will be looking at the different gifts that we have and the different ways in which we can put them to use.
This morning we are once again invited to the table, to this feast of Christ broken and poured out. For this meal we bring the gifts of God—wheat of the field, fruit of the vineyard—gifts that by human effort have been transformed into bread and wine. These gifts that we bring are given back to us as the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
This is a meal for those who are empty, who seek wholeness, who actively hope for peace and life. That is to say, this is a meal for people like you and me. Each time we come to this table we, like the Magi, are at the beginning of a journey. The bread and cup nourish us so that we can set out once more, following in the way of Jesus Christ.
[i] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.