We have completed the 12 days of Christmas.
‘On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:
‘12 drummers drumming …
‘11 pipers piping …
‘10 lords a-leaping …
‘9 ladies dancing …’
And on and on it goes. Not very useful gifts at all, as Frank Kelly reminded us in his parody of this song as Gobnait Ó Lúnasa.
But this morning, in our Epiphany Gospel reading (Matthew 2: 1-12), we remember the Three Wise Men, the Three Kings or the Three Magi, who brought their true gifts to the Christ Child in the Manger.
In many parts of Ireland, today is also known as both ‘Little Christmas’ and as Nollaig na mBan or ‘Women’s Christmas.’
This makes it appropriate to refer to a popular joke on social media that asks: ‘Do you know what would have happened if it had been Three Wise Women instead of Three Wise Men?’
The answer is:
‘They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts … and there would be Peace On Earth.’
Many of us have probably put Christmas behind us at this stage. We’ve probably taken down the tree, the decorations and the holly. Why, we have probably even forgotten our New Year’s resolutions too.
So, why should we remember this morning’s story of the visit of the three Wise Men? And how practical were their gifts?
Although Saint Matthew does not mention the number of wise men, the number of gifts they gave to the Christ Child has given rise to the popular tradition that there were three Magi.
I received Christmas greetings a few weeks ago from a friend, an icon-writer, who lives in Crete. For fun, I decided to run her message in Greek through Google Translate. And I was disturbed that it translated the three Magi as the three Wizards.
Our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 60: 1-6) and Psalm (Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14) speak of gifts given by kings and of the Messiah being worshipped by kings.
Saint Matthew’s account was reinterpreted in the light of these prophecies, and so the magi became kings rather than Persian wise men or priests. Perhaps this interpretation was influenced by the negative image of magi not in the Old Testament but in the New Testament.
The magi were members of the Persian priestly or religious caste. In the Old Testament, for example, the magi or wise men are led by Daniel (see Daniel 2: 48). But the same term later has negative connotation when it is used in the Acts of the Apostles to describe the sorcery of Simon Magus (Acts 8: 9-13) and the magic of Elymas (Acts 13: 6-11).
As the tradition developed, the three wise men in this Gospel story were transformed into kings who have been named as:
● Melchior, a Persian scholar;
● Caspar, an Indian scholar;
● Balthazar, an Arabian scholar.
In Western art from the 14th century on, they are portrayed in these ways:
● Caspar is the older man with a long white beard, who is first in line to kneel before the Christ Child and who gives him the gift of gold.
● Melchior is a middle-aged man, giving frankincense.
● Balthazar is a young man, very often black-skinned, with the gift of myrrh.
Saint Matthew names their gifts as: gold, frankincense, and myrrh: χρυσον (chryson), λιβανον (libanon) and σμυρναν (smyrnan) (Matthew 2: 11). These are ordinary offerings and gifts – for a king. But from Patristic times these gifts have been given spiritual meanings:
● Gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship;
● Frankincense as a symbol of worship and so of Christ’s deity;
● Myrrh as an anointing oil for his priesthood, or as an embalming oil and a symbol of his death.
Saint John Chrysostom suggests that these gifts were appropriate not just for a king but for God.
Origen summarises it in this way: ‘Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God’ (Contra Celsum).
Sometimes this is described more generally as:
● Gold symbolising virtue;
● Frankincense symbolising prayer;
● Myrrh symbolising suffering.
These interpretations are alluded to by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891), the son of a Dublin-born Episcopalian bishop, in our carol We Three Kings (Hymn 201), in which the last verse summarises this interpretation:
Glorious now behold him arise,
King, and God and Sacrifice.
Do you think the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph took these gifts with them as they fled into exile in Egypt?
Do you think they sent thank-you cards when they got to Egypt, or when they eventually got back to Bethlehem?
Several traditions have developed about what happened to these gifts.
There is a tradition that suggests Joseph and Mary used the gold to finance them when they fled.
Another story says the gold was stolen by the two thieves who are later crucified alongside Christ. Yet, another says the gold was entrusted to Judas, who misappropriated it.
But in the Monastery of Saint Paul on Mount Athos, there is a 15th century golden case that is said to contain the Gift of the Magi.
And another story says the myrrh was used to anoint Christ’s body after his crucifixion, before his burial.
But whatever the traditions, whatever the myths, whatever the legends may say, the truth they are trying to get across is that Christmas and Epiphany find their full meaning and their fulfilment in Good Friday and Easter Day, in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, when we see the Suffering and Risen Christ fully revealed to us as Prophet, Priest and King.
And they challenge us to ask whether we are offering our best, or merely our second best to Christ – to Christ in the suffering world, to Christ in the Church, to Christ who is to come again.
What gifts do we have to offer Christ?
If strangers came offering gifts to the Church, would we allow them to do so?
What gifts do you have that you think the Church is not recognising, but that are gifts for Christ, that could help the whole Church to look forward in the Easter hope?
Christmas is not over yet. It does not end with our Epiphany readings this morning. There are two more important Epiphany events in the coming weeks:
● the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, which we read about next Sunday [Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22; 13 January 2019]
● the Wedding Feast in Cana, which we read about on Sunday week [John 2: 1-11; 20 January 2019].
In fact, Christmas continues as a season in the Church until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation on 2 February, and which we read about on the first Sunday in February [Luke 2: 22-40 or 21-30; 3 February 2019].
On the feast of the Presentation, Mary and Joseph bring the Christ Child to the Temple, along with their meek gifts to offer to God, two turtle doves or two pigeons.
Their simple, poor gifts are acceptable to God, and the old priest Simeon realises that the Christ Child is born as ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ (Luke 2: 32).
No matter what gifts we bring, how rich or humble we are, they are acceptable to God. And the Christ Child is God’s gift to all humanity.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.