Today is the feast of the Epiphany, also known as the Theophany to the Eastern Churches, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. I am feeling unusually moved by this feast this year, having not paid much attention to it for a while.
The Gospel of Matthew is the source for the story of how wise men visited the infant Jesus. Let me cite it in the Common English Bible translation:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2They asked, “ Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him. ”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “ In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel. ” b
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “ Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him. ” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
Notice what this text does and does not say. It refers to magi, not wise men or kings; it doesn’t specify how many there are; and it certainly doesn’t give them names. Nor does Matthew mention the stable, the shepherds, and the animals–those details are from the Gospel of Luke.
Later tradition interpreted the magi–literally, priests of the Zoroastrian or old Persian religion, widely regarded in the ancient world as a prime source of spiritual and magical wisdom–as wise men or kings, called them Gaspar, Melchior, and Baltasar, and speculated that they came from different lands and all converged on the humble venue indicated by the star. But Matthew doesn’t say that. What he does say is what they brought the infant: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Why does he name these three substances, besides the fact that they were (and are) rare and valuable? John Henry Hopkins explained everything you need to know in his hymn “We Three Kings“:
The Gospel mentions a prophecy from the book of Micah about Bethlehem being the birthplace of the Messiah, but what is really in the back of the writer’s mind is material from the third and latest section of the book of Isaiah, starting at chapter sixty:
Arise! Shine! Your light has come;
the LORD ’s glory has shone
2 Though darkness covers the earth
and gloom the nations,
the LORD will shine upon you;
God’s glory will appear over you.
3 Nations will come to your light
and kings to your dawning radiance.
6 Countless camels will cover your land,
from Midian and Ephah.
They will all come from Sheba,
carrying gold and incense,
proclaiming the LORD ’s praises.
(I always hear Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” in my head when I read this.)
What Isaiah is looking forward to, and Matthew is riffing on, is a glorious future in which Jerusalem, the sacred center of Israel, will also be the sacred center of the world; foreigners will bring tribute and commerce to it, it will be wealthy and productive, and even more than that, it will become a center of worship where the nations, the goyim, will worship the LORD, the god of Israel.
I’m coming to gather all nations and cultures. They will come to see my glory. 19 I will put a sign on them, by sending out some of the survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Libya, and Lydia, and to the archers of Cilicia and Greece—distant coastlands that haven’t heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will declare my glory among the nations. 20 They will bring your family members from all nations as an offering to the LORD —on horses, in chariots, in wagons, on mules, and on camels—to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD , like Israelites bringing an offering in purified containers to the LORD ’s house. 21I will select some of them as priests and Levites, says the LORD .
22 As the new heavens
and the new earth that I’m making
will endure before me, says the LORD ,
so your descendants
and your name will endure.
23 From month to month
and from Sabbath to Sabbath,
all humanity will come
to worship me, says the LORD .
That’s pretty daring–to suggest that foreigners, non-Jews, unclean people, will be chosen to serve as priests alongside the one and only tribe that was allowed to serve the Temple, the sons of Levi. That’s what Matthew has in mind. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the kings and their camels–the kings always have camels, right?–are from the book of Isaiah.
So what does it all mean?
First of all, you might be wondering if I believe this actually happened, if Jesus and his family were visited by wealthy foreigners who gave them lots of luxury goods and explained that the astrological omens of the last year led them to a stable outside of Bethlehem. Well, no. I don’t believe that. I don’t think this story is a historical anecdote. I don’t think there’s any indication that Jesus grew up as anything but an average peasant in Galilee; his parents weren’t sitting on a stash of goods that made life easier for them.
However, Cynthia Bourgeault points out in The Wisdom Jesus that, as a Galilean, Jesus was not the backwoods hick that we have often assumed he was. To the authorities in Jerusalem, Galilee was a backwater, a marginal place full of marginal, slightly dodgy people. To the Romans and other non-Jews, Jerusalem, in fact, the whole province they called Palestine, was a marginal place, a strange little country full of religious eccentrics; Galilee was a stop on the Silk Road, a cosmopolitan place where local Jewish culture rubbed elbows with the world. Foreign merchants, foreign wealth, foreign potentates, and foreign ideas were perhaps more present in Jesus’ background than we used to think.
I look at this whole complex of images, the myth and the history, the reality of present-day Jerusalem, where three religions contend for the right to define the place and what it’s all about, where Jews and Palestinians are at one another’s throats, the reality of Rome and its replacement by other empires, and what I see is a gigantic missed chance. Christianity had a chance to become a sacred center where all the nations of the world brought their wealth, their wisdom, and their worship, gathered around a Christ who was anointed messiah, sacred king, eternal priest, fully enlightened one, the desire of the nations, the joy of every heart. It could have joined hands with existing religions as Buddhism mostly did, not replacing but enhancing them. It could have retained a vision of an alternative to Empire, to the instance of the conqueror, the oppressor, the tax collector, the army recruiter, that things have to be this way, always have been, always will be.
Instead, it joined hands with Empire. It went from being the despised religion of women and slaves, a cult for those who had not the money or social status to join more respectable foreign devotions, a way of life that people chose because it was better than the old ways, to being the darling of the Emperor, the conqueror’s banner. In this sign conquer! Constantine did. Jesus didn’t.
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