Most of us know what it is like to be faced with unexpected visitors. It is something of a surprise, and you do your best to make them feel at home. Today’s Gospel is all about unexpected visitors. Wise men from the East follow a star, looking for a baby, who has been born king of the Jews. They go to Jerusalem, to see Herod , as they assume that a king will be born to a royal family, in a palace. You cannot fault their reasoning. The Magi see a sign prefiguring a royal birth and go to where they think it will occur. Their arrival, however, does not quite have the effect they were expecting:
‘When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he enquired of them where the Christ was to be born.’ (Mt 2:3-4)
The wise men assume that the birth of a royal baby is a cause for celebration , but is certainly isn’t for Herod! His family had bribed the Romans to gain their position. They were not related to David, and they weren’t even from Israel. So, on hearing the news from the wise men, Herod assembles all the religious and legal experts he can find. He is terrified that his position as king is under serious threat. The child could have a legitimate claim, there could be a revolution and regime change. Herod needs to know where the child will be born.
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Mt 2:5-6)
Once Herod knows where the child is going to be born, the next thing is to find out when the birth will take place, and finally who this royal baby is. Bethlehem is the birthplace of the Davidic monarchy: King David was born there, and so was Jesus. The Gospel quotes a prophecy of Micah ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ (5:2) to support the claim.
‘Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way.’ (Mt 2:7-9)
Herod claims that he wants to know when the baby was born, so that he may come and worship the infant king. However, he had not intention of relinquishing his power, his behaviour is a sham. The Wise Men leave the palace and head for Bethlehem.
‘And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.’ (Mt 2:9-10)
The Magi have travelled hundreds of miles because they saw a star in the heavens. Now it is above Bethlehem, and they have reached the new-born King.
‘And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ (Mt 2:11)
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are unusual gifts for a baby, even a royal one. They are, however, all expensive, costly, and precious things. Gold, is a precious metal, which is pure and does not tarnish. It is a gift fit for a king. Gold’s purity points to a life of perfect obedience, the pattern of how life should be lived. Incense, from Arabia, was offered to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. As the sweet-smelling smoke rose, it looked like prayers rising to God. Frankincense is a sign of worship, and honour, representing how humanity should respond to God. Myrrh was often used in the ointment used for embalming, it speaks of death. Even in Jesus’ birth, we see Christ’s kingly power, and His obedience to the will of the Father. We see His role in worship as our great High Priest, which leads Him to Death and Burial.
‘And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.’ (Mt 2:12)
The Wise Men are warned not to go back to Herod, not to tell him who Jesus is. This is because Herod does not want to worship Jesus, he wants to kill Him, and safeguard his own position. And so the unexpected visitors leave as mysteriously as they arrived. These pilgrims from afar gave Our Lord gifts which celebrate His Humanity and Divinity, and which look forward to His Death and Burial. The beginning of Jesus’ earthly life looks to its end, because it is all part of the outworking of salvation history.
What we are celebrating today was prophesied by Isaiah in the first reading this morning:
‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you’ (Isa 60:1)
The birth of the Messiah is a sign of God’s glory, and the salvation He will bring for all people.
‘And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising’ (Isa 60:3)
These pilgrims are the Magi, the Wise Men, who represent the entire Gentile (non-Jewish) World. They have come to worship God born among us.
‘They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord’ (Isa 60:6)
The Magi recognise who it is they have come to see, and their gifts fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy. What might appear strange at first sight is, in fact, both apt and right: to worship God and honour a King, and to recognise the Saviour in their midst. Today the World recognises the birth of Jesus Christ, and the mystery of salvation is proclaimed to all.
Likewise as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany we also look forward to Our Lord’s Baptism in the River Jordan and his first miracle at the Wedding at Cana. He who is without sin shows humanity how to be freed from sin and to have new life in Him. In turning water into wine we see that the kingdom of God is a place of generous love, a place of joy, and of life in all its fullness.
So let us be filled with joy and love, of the Saviour made manifest, and may we proclaim the Good News of Our Salvation. Amen