Matthew 2:1-12 – First Sunday of Epiphany – for January 4, 2015
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2:1)
How many magi were there? Certainly the Gospel of Matthew never mentioned the names or numbers of those travelers from afar. Three is the traditional count, but modern magi math is based on the gifts offered to the child.
Did any unnamed and unnumbered sojourners really give those now-familiar treasures to Jesus and his family? Every first year seminary student knows they were symbolic gifts, somber references to impending greatness and inevitable death. And I can’t help wondering if Matthew’s author would’ve reconsidered those metaphoric presents if warned about a future of Black Fridays with its 40% discounts on the newest phones or fashions?
Many of us, myself included, put the bewildered shepherds and road-weary magi near each other on the mantel. The ceramic (or plastic or glass) figurines blankly gaze at the Christ child, where the infant is situated between old Joseph and young Mary. A host of heavenly angels—in my case, it’s a solitary angel—hovers nearby. But every regular attendee of ye olde Sunday school classes could identify the annual mantel miscues. Luke’s sheepish herders and Matthew’s wise guys were from different stories and appeared at different times.
First century Herod was grim and devious. He, like the twentieth century’s lying loser Richard Nixon or the vicious Joseph Stalin, had hidden agendas within hidden agendas. Can the one who has the power ever be trusted? We, the reader of Matthew, are glad for the dreams that warn the magi about Herod’s manipulations. It’s always better to take the long way home and still have your head properly attached to the neck.
The story formally called Epiphany rarely gets respect. We inflate the few facts that are known. We are weary and bleary from the Christmas story and too much time in the stores (whether brick and mortal or digital). After surviving Merry Consumerism, we are eager to embrace the adult Jesus at the end of his earthly ministry, rather than linger with Joseph and Mary’s kid at the beginning. After all, if we’re honest enough with the chronology of the magi’s epiphany, Jesus was near his terrible twos, didn’t have much of an attention span, and everyone just wanted to survive that period of familial chaos.
Epiphany . . .
- Now a holy day in the life of the church.
- Once a Gospel memory, related only by Matthew.
- A revealing, a sudden glimmer of a new truth, or an old truth that is finally understood.
However Epiphany or an epiphany is defined, we read about the wandering magi with their starry eyes, about cruel Herod and his lust to protect power, about a humble family on the verge of innocence lost. The day of Epiphany is positioned well, coming at the first of the year. January, the month named after the two-faced Roman god Janus, prompts me to wonder what gift I will bring?
(And you, kind reader, what gift will you bring?)
Am I not the fourth magi? Or, if not Larry the wise guy, aren’t I at least invited to be the giver with a fourth kind of gift? I won’t offer gold, or the other two harder to pronounce, harder to spell symbolic gifts, and yet shouldn’t I bring something to this party?
What has been revealed? What is my epiphany that is worth sharing, worth bending low on my aching knees to offer to my faith?
Janus-like, I glare backward and know I could’ve done better in 2014. Did I grow in wisdom? Sure. But I’ve also been Herod-like in my tiny fiefdom, guarding my pindling power and keeping my agendas hidden.
So, Janus-like and magi-inspired, what about the future? What gift is worthy enough to put before Jesus, the child of the terrible twos? The squirming youngster may not know gold’s value, but it glitters. A two-year-old may not care about resin used for rituals, but at least frankincense tickles the nose.
Though I’ve had no dream—nor nightmare—to guide my selection, I stick with what these current words represent and reveal.
I will keep writing*.
Which is easy to offer. I enjoy writing.
Which is not easy to offer, because for decades, I’ve longed to be published by a traditional press and for strangers—aka, readers who bought the book with their hard-earned dollars—say of a novel I’ve written, “Good read!”
But it hasn’t happened. Likely won’t happen. Give up, then?
Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.
Epiphany is worth celebrating because it dares us to give our best gifts for the foolish cause of Jesus’ love. I claim (even with doubt in my voice) that writing is my gift. What is yours? No, really, what is the gift that only you can bring? That only you, who also have tremors of doubt in your voice, can reveal to encourage not only Christ-like neighborly love, but also a love for the enemy, the stranger, and (sometimes hardest of all) a love for that member of your family, or that colleague in the office, who always irritates you? Come on, gift giver, prepare the gift only you can bring . . .
Herod, you see, is manifest in many forms. Herod rules the Realm of Regret. Herod’s minions are cynicism, pessimism, and self-criticism. Herod schemes to destroy all dreams.
But I am magi. You are magi. If, in the Jesus of the terrible twos, a new form of ruler is being revealed, then our best gifts continue to be worth giving.
*How presumptuous to claim, “Writing is my gift.” And yet, regardless of my success, crafting words into sentences into a coherent whole remains a thrill. It is the star I follow. Often enough, writing feels like I glimpse a hint of a hint of a hint of the Holy. On the best days I believe God to be more verb than noun, more future tense than past tense. I would wish for everyone, however they spend their precious time, to be thrilled with what they do. All gifts considered, being thrilled (and sometimes unsettled) about your calling is when you live and give and receive in the present moment!