Well, I suspect that for many of us feel Christmas is well and truly over now, even though there’s officially a few more days yet. Many people’s work, school, or college, begins again by tomorrow, if it ever even stopped. The final party was on New Year’s Eve, the next day was a chance to sleep it off over a Bank Holiday, and then it was all over at last for another year.
Mind you, the build-up seemed to start, not just in the shops but also in events and activities, just about as soon as Bonfire Night was over. As Christmas Day grew ever closer there were ever more parties and Christmas lunches and school nativity plays and carol singing, until at last the great day itself came and went.
It does seem that for most people, the Christmas season is before Christmas, ending perhaps after Boxing Day with the added fillip of New Year just to let us down gently and to ease us back into work. But for the Church, Christmas ends on 6 January with Epiphany, which marks the visit of the Magi – the Wise Men – to the stable at Bethlehem to see the new baby. So, today we meet the magi, at the start of a new year, how strange 2016 sounds, and a very important year for our church, as we make major decisions, whatever they might be, about the future of our mission and how we use our buildings to do help that.
Twelfth Night, 6 January, is when the decorations are traditionally taken down, since to leave them up after Twelfth Night is considered to be bad luck. Our Christmas season has long been a rich mixture of the spiritual and the secular, of folk traditions from way back mixed with traditions from the Bible. And somewhere into all that mix of Christmas and Twelfth Night, legend and story, come the magi from the East, riding their camels and bearing their exotic gifts.
In many churches the festival of the Epiphany has been rather lost. The Wise Men have been standing in the stable in the weeks before Christmas in many schools and churches, and in most churches they have been sung about over the Christmas period. So when we get to 6 January it feels a little as though we have done this before – rather like eating cold turkey well into January. Not only this, but we think of 6 January as “Twelfth Night” (with all its pagan significance) as well as the day when we remove all our Christmas decorations, so it really feels like the end of Christmas.
But it is important that we separate the coming of the Wise Men from the stable scene, and give this festival its due significance. Until this moment the coming of God’s Son to Mary and Joseph in the stable at Bethlehem was a Jewish phenomenon. He was to be the Messiah, the one who was to save God’s people. All of this had no relevance, and no significance, for the rest of the world, until the Wise Men arrived. The Wise Men signify that God is offering salvation to the whole world. They are themselves Gentiles (non-Jews) and will take the good news back to their own countries to begin the work of God’s salvation.
In order to appreciate fully the story of the wise men, we need to be clear how the story came together. Think for a moment of a patchwork quilt. I don’t mean the modern examples of wonderful needlework and stitching, but the old fashioned ones made from odds and ends of old material. Picture a quilt made of pieces from cast-off dresses, worn shirts, old curtains, or whatever else came to hand. All the components originally functioned as something quite different, and were mostly still readily identifiable as what they had been, but they also functioned excellently as a bed cover. The story of the wise men has been put together on much the same principles.
Tradition tells us there were three of them and even reveals their names to us immortalised in the carol, “We Three Kings of Orient are”, but the Bible never mentions a number let alone a name. Originally the word “Magi” referred to a Persian priestly caste, but it gradually changed its meaning as so many words do, and eventually came to refer to those who were regarded as having supernatural knowledge. The Magi might have been astrologers who studied ancient manuscripts from around the world, but who had copies of the Old Testament in their land because of the Jewish exile some 600 years earlier. Or they might have been Jews who remained in Babylon after the exile and knew the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah’s coming. Some scholars believe the Magi were from different lands, representing the whole world bowing before Jesus. Whoever they were, they were men who recognised Jesus as the Messiah when most of God’s chosen people in Israel failed to recognise him.
It was a common ancient belief that a new star always appeared at the time of a ruler’s birth, but in his story Matthew also draws on the Old Testament story of Balaam, who had prophesied that “a star shall advance from Jacob” (Numbers 24:17), although in this context the star refers not to an astral phenomenon but to the king himself. Whatever the Old Testament story meant, apparently there was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in 6 BC (thought to be the year Jesus was actually born) which would have produced a bright enough light in the heavens to have been seen throughout much of the ancient world.
When the Magi arrived with the unwelcome news about a potential threat to Herod’s autonomy, Herod’s hurried consultation with the chief priests and scribes recalls a Jewish legend about the baby Moses, some 1,450 years earlier. In this legend the “sacred scribes” warn Pharaoh about the imminent birth of one who will deliver Israel from Egypt, and Pharaoh makes plans to destroy this child. It may be that this legend is based on the destruction of the first born at the time of the Exodus, and texts which refer to this (such as Psalm 72:10, 15 and Isaiah 60:6) are those texts which led to the interpretation of the Magi as kings.
If the Magi were of Jewish descent and came from Parthia (which next to Rome, was the most powerful region), they would have welcomed a Jewish king who could swing the balance of power away from Rome. Being far from Rome, the land of Israel would have been easy prey for a take-over bid from any nation trying to gain more control. And since Herod’s title of King of the Jews was granted by Rome but never accepted by the Jewish people, most Jews both within Israel and elsewhere would welcome a new pretender to the throne. Although Israel benefitted from Herod’s lavish building programme and his efforts to repair the temple in Jerusalem, he was despised for rebuilding various pagan temples and for his cruelty. And, of course, since Herod was only partly Jewish, he was never really accepted by the Jewish people.
But the Magi weren’t bothered by Herod and the threat he posed, they went on their way regardless of the danger because reaching Jesus was more important to them than anything else, and they were prepared to take any risks to find him. When they found him, even though he was only a baby, they worshipped him, and presented their gifts to him.
The gifts, of course, were highly symbolic. Gold represented kingship and was a gift for a king, incense represented spirituality and prayer and was a gift for a deity, and myrrh was a spice used in burials. So all three of the gifts foreshadowed both Jesus’ life and his death.
After finding the Saviour they were seeking, the Magi were warned by God to return to their own land a different way rather than through Jerusalem as they had intended.
Finding Jesus means taking risks in life, and may mean risking all simply to find him. But once he’s found, life may have to take a different direction, one that is responsive to and obedient to God’s call. So as we move away from Christmas and more fully into this New Year, are you willing to seek Christ out and be led in a different way, like the wise men of old?