oday we get to hear what often feels like the final chapter of the Christmas Story. We get to hear about the wise men bearing gifts to the Christ Child. January 6 is when western Christians celebrate the feast of Epiphany, which takes its name from the Greek meaning disclosure, manifestation, unveiling or appearance. Speaking of Greek, it was the Greek historian Herodotus who tells us that the magi were a caste of priests from Persia who could interpret dreams. That’s a good thing, because there are five dreams in Matthew’s birth narrative, not that they seem to need much interpretation, they are fairly straight forward, instructive dreams, go here, don’t go there. But these learned men turn up at Herod’s house looking for the king that has been born.
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Walter Bruggeman tell us that they were nine miles off track. The wise men had followed the text of Isaiah 60, a lengthy poem recited to Jews in Jerusalem nearly 600 years before Christ. These Jews had been in exile having returned to a bombed-out city of Jerusalem. They were in despair. The prophet invites his depressed, discouraged returnees to look up, to seek hope and to expect change, the glory of Zion will return “Rise, shine, for your light has come.” The poem tells of how Jerusalem will become a beehive of productivity and prosperity, a new centre of international trade. “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. . . the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come.”
This should have been a cause for celebration. Herod should have been thrilled with the arrival of these men. However, all he has heard is that his rule has been threatened by the arrival of a new king. The scholars tell him, if they are looking for a new king, they have the wrong text. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that prosperity for Jerusalem will be a good thing, however in that scenario, the urban elite would recover their former power and prestige, and nothing will really change. The text that will really change everything is the Micah 5 text “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD.”
Herod’s agitation is deepened as he realises through the Micah text, that this is no mere political opponent he is going to have deal with. “A ruler who will shepherd“ could be the phrase that riles him up. Shepherding is not associated with political power. Rulers rule. Presidents preside. Leaders lead. Executives execute. They don’t shepherd! Shepherding implies compassion, care and a courageous life-sacrificing quality that few powerful people would understand or want to practice.
Micah is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with city buildings. It anticipates a different future, a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by a love for the folks on the ground. A new king is a threat to the old king and the old order. Herod is incredibly threatened by this turn of events but encourages the wise men to take their gifts and find the child king.
The gifts that are taken along are Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, the first being a precious metal that was fit for royalty, suggesting that the gift be fit for a ruler. The second, Frankincense has been touted for its medicinal and soothing properties. It is a milky sap tapped from the Boswellia tree. Herbalists say it is calming, restorative, gently clarifying, and meditative. Ancient people burned frankincense, believing it to carry their prayers to heaven. Its use as incense illustrates the child’s role as our Priest. In the incense we burn here, there is some grains of Frankincense in the mix. The last named gift Myrrh. This is the odd gift among the bunch.
Monty Python, in the Life of Brian, got the notion right with their sketch of the three kings visiting. They had the mother of Brian being quite bewildered, but ready to receive the presents, so as the three kings are about to leave, she thanks them for their tribute, making special note of how pleased she is with the gold and frankincense. The myrrh, however, she could do without the myrrh next time. Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment, they have brought with them the fragrance of death, not a usual gift for a birth. It was given prophetically by pagans who knew that death was part of this boys future, and not just natural death.
The visitors are warned through a dream to go home another way, to avoid Herod. Joseph is told, again in a dream, to take his family to Egypt. The story of the pagan magi worshipping Jesus ends in carnage when king Herod slaughters innocent children in order to strengthen his rule. This is an old story, one that is being retold many times in our own day, in which political powers annihilate their opposition to protect their power. Idi Amin killed in the region of 300,000 Ugandans during his regime, he was a Herod of our time if ever there was one. One thing they all have in common is that they know no limits when they sense that their tenuous holds on power is threatened. Stanley Hauerwas says:
… such fear – fear born of power – recognises no limit because it draws it’s strength from death. Accordingly Herod orders the killing of all children born in and around Bethlehem two years old and under, the time he estimates that it took the magi to reach Israel. Perhaps no event in the gospel more decisively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the killing of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed and continue to be killed to protect the power of the tyrants.
This is a very disturbing ending to our Christmas story, it is one of those texts where there is no comfortable solution. It’s not pretty. The first reaction to Jesus presence in the world is the slaughter of innocent children, nothing can undo the grief this would have caused. What this story does tell us is that we live in a world where those who are ruled by fear know no bounds, and will go to extraordinary lengths to hang on to that power and control. This did not change at the arrival of this child, Jesus didn’t come to make everything better, to fix everything. His arrival in the world does not change the fact that fear and love still wage war against each other. His arrival does mean that we have the possibility of weighing the odds in the war, which means that our lives, or our world do not need to be ruled by fear. The Epiphany, the disclosure, was that there is another route that can be taken, should we choose to take it, one of love. “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” There are many things that are to be learned from Pagans!