I think sometimes we forget, but the Feast of the Epiphany is by far the most exotic of the major Church feasts. We’ve watched as those exotic wise men have made there way back to the creche, jumping from radiator to exotic radiator. We sing (or will sing) that exotic tune, we three kings from Orient are, how mysterious, almost tantalizing.
We find all this goodness in the Gospel according to Matthew, but good old St. Matt didn’t start out his book that way. “Matthew opens his Gospel with what to modern eyes looks like a dry-as-dust family tree of Jesus, only to reveal to those with eyes to see a series of things in that family history that were anything but dry and anything but expected or pleasant. Four foreign-born women (three with dubious sexual pasts) are named or hinted at in the genealogy as Matthew’s none-too-subtle way of reminding his mostly Jewish readers that the family that produced the Messiah had itself been far more diverse than most people wanted to admit, had had plenty of skeletons in the family closet, and had, therefore, hinted all along that God was up to something much bigger than just saving a whole bunch of people who looked and acted and thought exactly alike.
“In case someone missed that in that family tree, Matthew concludes what we now call his opening chapter by introducing us to “Immanuel,” to “God with us” only to then immediately open his second chapter with a primer on just who the “us” was with whom this God-in-flesh would be. If “Immanuel” means “God with us,” then just who constitutes the “us” part? Matthew gives the opening salvo of an answer by introducing us to a group (no one knows how many) of astrologers from Baghdad whose pseudo-science and quasi-religion was as overtly condemned by Scripture as the foreign nature of these Magi was detested by any person with a holy bone in his body.
The Magi were not only spiritually lost and religiously detestable,” they managed to bumble into some local intrigue. As anyone would, they stopped into the court of the local king, but they happened into the court of the most paranoid man who had ever occupied a throne of power, “only to inquire after a newborn king in the neighborhood. Many Jewish babies would die before the larger story of all this was finished.”1
But the Magi, those supposed wise men, did have a few things going for them. First, they had the sense to have read and believed Hebrew Scripture, which got them moving west in the first place. Second, they brought gifts, and who doesn’t like gifts? Gold always makes a good gift, even if a newborn might not appreciate right away. And who doesn’t love some frankincense and myrrh? Wait; frankincense and myrrh? That’s right, some dried tree sap that, perhaps surprisingly, was worth at least as much as the gold. People in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have produced frankincense and myrrh for some 5,000 years. For much of this time, these aromatic resins were the region’s most important commodity, with a trade network that reached across Africa, Asia and Europe. Pliny the Elder claimed that Arabia produced approximately 1,680 tons (1,524 metric tons) of frankincense and around 448 tons (406 metric tons) of myrrh each year. Both would have been considered practical gifts with many uses. The expensive resins were symbolic as well. Frankincense, which was often burned, symbolized prayer rising to the heavens like smoke, while myrrh, which was often used for burials, symbolized death. Accordingly, a mixture of wine and myrrh would be offered to Jesus during his crucifixion.2 All three gifts would be considered not only valuable and kingly, but practical and symbolic. Pretty good stuff.
Third, they were Gentiles, and like we talked about before, not only were they Gentiles, they were Gentile astrologers. They may have been really nice guys, but they were mind-blowingly lost before they were found, or that Baby reeled them in with His star. Whether they meant to or not, by following the call of God they became not only some of the coolest guys in the New Testament, but also symbols of the reach of the Gospel.
And that, really, is the story of the Epiphany, the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, to us, to the whole world. The Son, the second Person of the Trinity did indeed take flesh and hang out with us for 30-some odd years, and in doing so, He gave us a gift, He made it possible for everyone in the whole world, from the most pious Jew to the most detestable Gentile, to know and feel the saving love of God in Christ Jesus. And so it turns out, after all, His gift was better than theirs.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week
2Clint Pumphrey, What are Frankincense and Myrrh?, http://www.howstuffworks.com