January 8, 2023

Brief synopsis of the readings: As we continue toward the end of Isaiah we continue to see God’s reminder that the long awaited light has come. This light will attract all nations and rulers as well as provide untold wealth and riches, including gold and incense. Matthew’s Gospel describes the Epiphany: the magi (wise men) from the east traveling to see the newborn king of the Jews. On their way to Bethlehem they passed through Jerusalem and Herod heard of their pilgrimage. Herod asked the magi to return to Jerusalem on their way back so that he (Herod) could also do homage. The magi found Jesus and offered him gold, frankincense and myrrh. They did not, however, return to Jerusalem and see Herod. They were warned not to in a dream and took a different route back.”

As with many readings at this time of year today’s Gospel gives us a familiar image of Joseph, Mary and Jesus with the magi and their gifts. But perhaps more than any image in Scripture, we’ve added to it in our mind. Jesus’ early visitors are only called magi, or wise men. We are not told anything more than that, but virtually every representation shows three wise men. Furthermore we have their names: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

Were there three and were those their names? Well, we don’t know, and in a sense it doesn’t matter. Many presumed that there were three magi because they presented three gifts. We have all sorts of theories over where their names came from. Reading more into Scripture than we have is hardly unique to this passage and this type of interpretation is often called “Midrash.” We do this as a way of looking at ancient texts with an eye toward connecting them with today’s experiences.

And we do with this Gospel. The idea of giving and receiving presents is what we do at Christmas. There’s an old joke that if the magi were wise women, instead of bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh they would have brought formula, diapers and wipes because these would have been more practical. That points to our custom of not only exchanging gifts but exchanging the right gifts and putting great pressure on ourselves to do so. When we give a revered gift it shows the recipient not only how much we care about him but also how well we know him (or her).

If we think back, particularly our childhood, many of us remember a particular gift that still brings a warm feeling to us. When I was a child I was an incredible football fan and it wasn’t hard to see. I had signed autographs of two of the local players and pictures covering much of my bedroom walls. I knew the name and number of nearly everyone on the team and their strengths and weaknesses. I was also (and still am) addicted to books. For Christmas 1970 my parents gave me a book on the first 50 years of the National Football League (unimaginatively name The First Fifty Years). It was a coffee table book and I spent countless hours poring over it to the slightest detail. To this day I can quote the most random trivia on the early history of the NFL. Did you know that in the 1920s Duluth, Minnesota had a football team called the Duluth Eskimo’s? Or that the New York Giants won the NFL championship in a snowy 1934 game when they switched from cleats to sneakers at halftime? By the way, I still have the book these 52 years later.

My point with that story is that we think so much of the magi that we’ve taken on their roles for ourselves. We’ve embellished what we find in Scripture to make it our own and bring it into our own lives. And we’ve assigned the word “epiphany” to it. The word finds its roots in the words “appearance” or “manifestation.” But it also evokes in us a new way of looking at things. When scientists make a discovery they often describe it as looking at the same problem from an entirely different and new angle.

Epiphany allows us to take on our roles as the magi but it also allows us to place our loved ones in the role of Jesus. When God’s light crashed into our darkness in the Incarnation it wasn’t meant just to dazzle us or provide a market for the world’s retailers. It was meant to provide us a path to salvation but it also was meant to remind ourselves that we are created in God’s image.

It was meant to show us that we are all not only called to Divinity but are provided with a path toward it. And that path begins with how we view ourselves and each other. At the risk of sounding cliche we need to remember that the things that divide us pale in comparison to those things that unite us.

I could probably write this line at any time in our history but we don’t have to look hard at those things that divide us. As a matter of fact Herod plays an important role in today’s Gospel. Herod was a Jew and if asked would swear he looked forward to the birth of the Messiah. But he was troubled to find that it would happen on his watch because he feared (rightly) that this birth would change and probably diminish his power. He didn’t ask the magi to report back to him so he could provide homage to Jesus: he wished to kill Jesus in the laughable belief that this would outsmart God.

Even today, 2000 years later, we divide each other by skin color, faith beliefs, sex, sexual orientation and a hundred other things. Again and again we learn that our differences celebrate our diversity, that the Messiah is in all of us regardless of how we look or who we love.

Finally, I wonder sometimes if Joseph and Mary were able to trade the gold, frankincense and myrrh for formula, diapers and wipes.