Updated: Jan 7, 2022
For many North Americans, the final great feast of the Christmas season, Epiphany, (best known as the day the Three Magi came calling in Bethlehem), tends to get lost in the post-Christmas and post-New Year's festal dénouement. For most of the Christian world, the feast is celebrated today on January 6th, but for those of us in North America, it is usually celebrated on the closest Sunday to the 6th, an accommodation to most of us who just aren't going to get ourselves to church yet again on an otherwise ordinary (for us!) weekday in early January.
Here in Ecuador, the feast was celebrated today, Thursday, January 6th. Churches were open, Nativity scenes had the Magi and their camels added to the mix of sheep, shepherds, and Holy Family, and Matthew's story of the Three Magi, Herod, and little Jesus was proclaimed from their church ambos for all to hear yet again. Some homilies delivered were probably great; others perhaps not so much. (My own homily for the occasion, probably somewhere in the middle on the quality scale, can be found here: Epiphany.)
The story of those Three Wise Guys as told in Matthew's Gospel, (Matthew 2), is an immensely important one for the many lessons it teaches about just who this babe in swaddling clothes actually is. It is also important for what it telegraphs about just who he will be and how he will get there once he grows up. Perhaps the most important "lesson" in the story is that this little baby Jesus in Bethlehem is the true king of the Jews...not that wicked, mean, and murderous Herod just up the road in his grand Jerusalem palace. Matthew wants the contrast between these two "kings" to be black and white: one, though powerful and mighty, is an imposter; the other, weak, fragile, and poor as poor can be, is the true king. The Magi from the East get it and leave their royal gifts in Bethlehem, bypassing that snarling, sneaky, miserable excuse of a king in Jerusalem. What their story telegraphs ahead is found particularly in the gifts they leave behind: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We all know what gold is and that it is a particularly "kingly" gift. It reminds us that this Jesus is the true King of the Jews, not rotten old Herod, who got nothing from the Magi by way of gifts! That title, "King of the Jews" comes back into the story in a haunting way as Jesus is taunted and mocked and violently pilloried later in Matthew's gospel: "Hail, King of the Jews!" the soldiers say as they spit on him and strike him with reeds (Matthew 27:27-31, and again in verse 42). The title of "King of the Jews" now becomes a bitter one, but no less true than in the earlier, gilded story from the manger in Bethlehem as evidenced by the unambiguous sign placed atop the cross: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" (Matthew 27:37).
Traditionally, the frankincense, aromatic pitch closely associated with the prayer of the Temple and not so different from what we use in the liturgy even today, was seen as a proclamation of Jesus' divinity. Myrrh, an oil used for embalming dead bodies, is a prognostication of this child's horrific death. It is very much a contradictory sign of his kingship and divinity because death, particularly death on a cross, unjust and ungodly, seems to be the very antithesis of the divinity attributed to Jesus in the Gospel from beginning to end. But it is precisely in the suffering and death of Jesus, his dead body anointed with myrrh, that his "godness" is made manifest. By pouring himself out and letting go of life, he lives. In my mind, the myrrh is the most important of the three gifts given to baby Jesus, for it prepares us who listen to the story anew to see Jesus' way through opposition, weakness, persecution and most of all, a grimy, unholy and shameful death as the new way of God in saving his people and his outsiders (represented by the non-Jewish magi from the East). Jesus' divinity made evident in his fragile humanity and in his eventual death, is made manifest to anyone willing to see, even strangers from the orient, (but not Herod right next door in Jerusalem!).
This "making manifest" is the very meaning of the word, "Epiphany". So there you have it. A final, great Christmas story and a final great Christmas feast that should not be lost from view of both insiders and outsiders.
I write about all this because I didn't really preach about it last Sunday when we celebrated the feast here in Cuenca among our North American community; I focused on the Star instead, the one that the Magi followed to Bethlehem, but came to pretty much the same point: God's Spirit beckons the most unlikely people in the most unlikely ways to see, know, believe...including us, here and now.