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The Epiphany (celebrated in advance of 6 Jan.)

3 Jan 2021

Saint Margaret’s Church

Budapest, Hungary

Eszti and Eliza received a boardgame for Christmas – Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Due to border restrictions the gift exchange transpired over Zoom, but that didn’t dampen the girls’ excitement. In the game, Sherlock provides you with a briefing on a case, after which it is up to you to collect additional facts through included newspapers, interviewing various suspects and informants, and deciding which leads to follow. When you think you have the mystery solved, you flip to the back of the booklet and collect points based on the number or questions you are able to answer correctly, minus the number of leads you followed. Consequently, in order to best Sherlock, it is crucial to avoid chasing red herrings and piece together the salient facts as efficiently as possible.

Today, we are celebrating the Epiphany a few days early, when God shockingly enters our world as a vulnerable, disregarded infant, and reveals himself to the Magi. The word epiphany means ‘reveal’ – but more than just revealing himself to the Magi, God reveals a mystery that the Apostle Paul notes, had not just been hidden from humankind in former generations, but also from the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). Apparently, not even the angels were able to piece together this mystery of God’s salvation.

Like the Sherlock Holmes game, though we might know the solution to the mystery – the Gospel – there are nevertheless some important leads that might still warrant pursuing, questions that might shed greater light on what God is trying to reveal to us today. For example, from our reading in Matthew: Who are these wise men from the East? What is this star? And why did they bring gold, frankincense and myrrh?

The Magi

The term ‘magi’ – the ‘Wise Men’ – refers to a wide range of astronomers, fortune tellers, priestly diviners and magicians. The connection with the star indicates they were astrologers, unlike the magician Simon we read about in Acts 8. ‘The East’ could refer to Persia, Babylonia, or perhaps the desert area east of Israel, where the gifts that the Magi brought were typically found. Matthew isn’t specific.

Nor is Matthew specific regarding how many Magi there were, simply that there were more than one. The traditional number of three seems to have started with Origen (185-254) who assumed that since there were three gifts there must have been three Magi. Logical enough, though I’m not sure Sherlock would approve.

Later, these 3 “kings” were given names and imbued with symbolic value. For example, Caspar, the elderly, white-haired King of Tarsus, has a green cloak and bears the gift of gold. Melchior, the middle-aged King of Arabia, has brown hair and a gold cloak, and offers the frankincense. Lastly, Balthasar is the youthful black King of Ethiopia, who has a purple/blue cloak and is typically associated with bringing the myrrh.

In any event, these men saw some kind of astronomical phenomenon that indicated to them that a king had been born in Judea.

The Star of Bethlehem

Throughout the centuries, astronomers – along with everyone else! – have advanced proposals for the appearance of this “star.” Perhaps the most famous was that of Johannes Kepler, the 17th century astronomer and mathematician, known for his laws of planetary motion and contribution to the scientific revolution. Hindered from observing an extremely rare conjunction of planets in 1604 due to cloudy skies over Prague – similar to what we experienced a few weeks ago! – the following day Kepler discovered one of the earliest well-observed novae, or ‘new stars.’ “Supernova-ing” next to Jupiter, it was as if a new star suddenly appeared in the heavens and then gradually diminished in brightness over the next few weeks, after which time it was never seen again by the naked eye. The star appeared, and then it vanished.

Apparently, this got Kepler thinking about the Star of Bethlehem, who after performing a massive amount of quite literal astronomical calculations with respect to planetary positions around the time of Jesus’ presumed birth, concluded that a new star appearing in the context of a Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in June of 7 B.C. (Herod died in 4 B.C., which meant Jesus wasn’t born in the year 0, but probably somewhere between 5-7 B.C.) could not have been interpreted by the Magi as anything less than an omen of an imminent event of historic proportions.

Whether the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova combined with a planetary conjunction, or a miracle akin to God leading Israel through the wilderness by a pillar of fire and cloud (or something entirely else!) doesn’t alter one important fact: God chose to reveal himself to these star-gazing pagan Magi via a language that they could comprehend.

While their revelation was incomplete – for example they made the natural assumption that the Judean king would be born in the capital city, Jerusalem, as well as the almost fatal assumption that Herod would be glad to hear this news – they nevertheless responded with faith and set out on a long journey to honor and worship this newborn king.

Matthew’s point seems to be that our response to God’s revelation, not the correctness of our understanding of it, is what is important. He draws a stark contrast between the Magi and the Jewish people, who despite having the Scriptures and knowing that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, either don’t respond at all, or worse still, with fear and eventually rejection.

It reminds me of the parable of the talents, except the servant who is given 5 goes out and buries it, while the servant who is only given one, invests it and ultimately brings a return of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

The three gifts of the Magi. The meaning of gold is fairly obvious, a fitting gift for a king. Frankincense – unlike the normal incense burned in the Temple, was one of the three spices mixed to create the holy incense burned twice a day in the Holy of Holies, before the Ark of the Covenant, on an altar covered in pure gold. It’s inclusion as one of the gifts of the Magi, while perhaps ‘coincidental’, is nevertheless a fascinating detail Matthew chose to include. It perhaps points to Jesus as High Priest.

Finally, the myrrh – another aromatic spice that embodies its own mystery – that is, how to correctly spell it. Myrrh was the key ingredient in the sacred anointing oil used to consecrate the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, the altars as well as the priests and later kings. Additionally, however, myrrh is a natural antiseptic and consequently was used to dress wounds as well as to anoint the dead. Skipping forward in the story, following Jesus’s crucifixion, the three Mary’s brought myrrh to anoint his body on Easter morning. Thus, in a sense, the Magi’s gift symbolically anointing Jesus as king, is also a harbinger of his death.

Jesus was neither born in the Judean equivalent of Buckingham Palace, nor coronated in an elaborate ceremony. Furthermore, like the Magi who were warned in a dream to return to their home kingdom via a different route, Jesus’ journey to the throne involved a number of seeming detours, beginning with fleeing to Egypt as a refugee.

Yet Jesus’ life was far from ‘star-crossed’. His death, foreshadowed by the myrrh, was actually the path by which Jesus was crowned King of Kings, the rightful ruler over every nation, including that of the Magi. His kingship wasn’t achieved through victory over the occupying Romans with a sword, but rather he gained victory over a much more powerful adversary by surrendering his life. Executing the most audacious cosmic Judo move ever witnessed, this vulnerable infant ultimately crushes the head of the serpent, trampling on death by death.

Traditionally, Gentile Christians have read themselves into this story of the Magi from the East – God inviting us, those outside his original covenant, into relationship with his Son, Jesus. I don’t have much gold, frankincense or myrrh, but perhaps he is inviting us into a season of renewed prayer? Or reading through the Bible following a daily plan? Maybe serving at church in a new capacity? Perhaps you have never actually decided to enter into a relationship with God through Jesus and this year you want to explore what faith means.

In a landscape of turbulent politics, a raging pandemic, and great uncertainty over the future, do we figuratively remain in Jerusalem, full of fear and perhaps anger because things aren’t going the way we think they ought to? We might not have been able to see the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn a few weeks ago, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that Jesus is as alive today as he was 2027 years ago (if we use Kepler’s proposed birthday). God is with us – Emmanuel. The question that begs an answer, is how will we respond?

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