You can also read my rather different take on the magi, complete with quiz!
The celebration of Epiphany is the end of the Christmas season; amongst other things it is the celebration of the Magi, the wise men coming to worship Jesus. Epiphany means ‘striking appearance’. But, not because of the appearance of the magi, but because of the appearance of Jesus, God revealing himself. And, through the magi, God revealing himself to all nations, as we heard would happen in the first reading.
We celebrate the coming of the wise men at Epiphany, and not on Christmas day because they turned up later, possibly a couple of years later. So, if you still haven’t got around to sending all those Christmas presents or cards; don’t worry, you’re in good company!
There’s lots of things we don’t know about the magi. We don’t really know where they were from, or how many there were, or how long it took, or when they actually turned up. All those details were added later by people who didn’t think that the gospel accounts gave enough details. And they don’t. Because they weren’t focusing on the things that we’d like to know. They had a different purpose, the purpose of sharing the good news that the first Christmas brought. So, at Epiphany we celebrate the wise men giving presents to Jesus. As people have pointed out they weren’t exactly the most practical gifts! Although, frankly, they probably came in handy when the family were forced to flee for their lives. Due, of course, to the mistake that the wise men made in telling Herod about what they had seen.
As we heard in the reading, when the magi came looking for the new king, they first visited the current king, to find out where the next one might be. Which probably wasn’t very wise! Particularly if they knew anything at all about King Herod. Before he was king he already had complaints about brutality. To actually become king he waged a three year campaign to capture the kingdom. Later, he killed his brother-in-law, his second wife and three of his sons because he thought they were plotting against him.
So, it’s probably not much of a surprise that when a group of foreigners turn up saying that there is a new king, the old, brutal king starts plotting to remove this new pretender before he becomes any more of a problem.
But, the magi go on and worship the new king anyway. And as we’ve already sung and heard, they give gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Which is also what we heard would happen in the reading from the prophet Isaiah, writing hundreds of years before Jesus was born. ‘Nations will come to your light’ we’re told, presents will be brought, rich presents of gold and incense, as part of proclaiming the praise of the Lord. Which is, of course, what we are doing in this service tonight.
Gifts are brought to Jesus, not at Christmas, but at Epiphany. But, of course, it is on Christmas that we received our gifts, whatever they were. A mix I guess, of things you wanted and things that you didn’t, of things that you’re using and things that if you haven’t already, will shortly be put in the cupboard and will be glimpsed only occasionally. We receive our gifts at Christmas because the magi were bringing their gifts in response to the gift that had already been given, the gift of Jesus himself.
‘Nations will come to your light’ the prophet Isaiah said, and it is that gift that the gifts of the magi responded to, and which our gifts mirror in some small way. It is the gift of the light of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas and at Epiphany. And, like any gift, it is a gift that may be wanted or unwanted, may be used regularly, or put back in the cupboard to be glimpsed only occasionally. But, it is a gift that can be enjoyed not just until the batteries run out, or until the next model comes along, but the light of Christ is a gift that can be enjoyed forever. Amen.