For about 10 seconds every year I think about the Epiphany and how it is misrepresented in pop culture — that Jesus is born and just minutes later 3 wise men show up at the manger. I make an internal partial joke “And now the wisemen from 2 Christmases ago are arriving.” There isn’t a Nativity scene that doesn’t have the 3 wise men and a camel. (Which also leads to questions like: Did they only have one camel to share?)
But this most recent Epiphany I had an epiphany. Mainly because I spent longer than 10 seconds contemplating the 3 wise men.
Now sure, I nestle my 3 wise men around baby Jesus in my Nativity scene and naturally I make the camel sit next to the donkey and the sheep. And I like them there; it’s a comfort of tradition. But really it does a disservice to the importance of this moment. It makes you come at the Nativity with a Post-Jesus perspective. Of course 3 wise men would bring him gifts for a king – Jesus is a King! Jesus is worthy of adoration. Jesus is God so ‘Oh come let us adore him!’ So naturally bring your gold, frankincense, and myrrh and present them before the King. And naturally you arrive there just moments after he is born.
But now I wish we wouldn’t intermingle the two things out of convenience for a well-balanced commercial Nativity set. Though I will pause here and give credit to creches I have seen in churches – you do not see wisemen there – just Joseph, Mary, Jesus, shepherds, sheep and an Angel. Though even the Church has an accelerated timeline for their arrival – our Liturgical calendar still compacts the timeline down so that January 6 (or for added convenience – the 1st Sunday after January 1) it ends up that boom 3 wise men are here! (Because they had one super speedy camel?)
At this point I have more questions than answers and I need to read more. But here are things I was pondering…
Each of these wise men came from a different place in the East; or at least that is what I’ve always thought – though to arrive at the same time I guess they traveled together? And I guess traveling together would make sense – because how did they each pick out different gifts to bring?
They probably weren’t Jewish, were they? So they had different theological backgrounds but God revealed to them the importance of Jesus’ birth. Though they each trusted and followed the star [shining in the East beyond them far] and set out on an incredibly long journey! Even if they didn’t understand “why” or “who” they knew there was significance and importance to the star that appeared in the sky.
The journey took them about 2 years – based on Matthew 2:16. Not only did they pack up and leave their homes faithfully following along, but they kept going night after night. [Did the star shine in the day? Did it shine at all after its rising? If not how did they know where to go?] Did they expect such a long journey? Did they know when they departed their homes they were going to travel “to” for 2 years [and don’t forget they needed to travel 2 years back home]? Did they care how long it would take or did they know it was worth it? Or did they just trust and follow?
When they met Toddler Jesus he wasn’t a newborn lying in a manger. He was a toddler, able to run around, perhaps speak a few words. What was their interaction like? What words did they speak to each other? Was Jesus playful? Was he shy? Did he hide behind Mary’s leg as the Magi presented him the gifts? How long did they stay?
Also, Toddler Jesus wasn’t still living in the stable – so the whole scene was different than a Nativity set would suggest. They probably entered into a living room, sat down for a conversation, etc. What did that look like?
What did Mary, Joseph, and Jesus do with the gold, frankincense and myrrh? I’ve always wondered this. Though I assume it helped them fund their new lives as refugees in Egypt – a place where they didn’t have family, connections, or a job that would provide them with a settled life. But how easy would it be to walk around with these things and they just say “Oh I have some Frankincense I can trade you for some food. Or some myrrh if you prefer.” Or did the Holy Family cherish these treasures and keep them forever?
When the magi had a dream and were warned not to return to Herod what did they think about that? Yes, they decided to depart for their country “by another way” but they had just come to see the new born king and surely gathered that he wasn’t a political king – based on who they found and where they found him. Or were they thinking in political terms? Or did they understand that Jesus was a different kind of king? Having paid him homage and delivered the gifts was that all they had come to do? Did they plan to stay longer? Or did receiving the dream and knowing they needed to avoid Herod rush their visit? The point was to do one moment of homage and they leave? So then they didn’t really understand Jesus was who he was? Or they did and after they left they proclaimed it to others?
When they returned home after having been away for about 4 years surely they would have been asked about their trip by people, right? How was it? Who is the king? Who’s son is it? And other prying questions asked out of sincere interest or for the sake of knowing the gossip. Or was it a common thing for magi to just up and journey for years at a time delivering expensive gifts to many different kings – and so these types of questions weren’t asked? Was this a special event or was it common place? What did the magi say?
So that was that Epiphany. This year the magi and these Liturgical readings weren’t just approached as “And now we read about the 3 wise men and sing a few of the classic 3 wise men songs” but instead I finally contemplated them probably more in line with how I should have been contemplating them my whole life.
Funny how you have more questions than answers when you start to wonder things… but I also know that my star is Jesus and having answers to these questions really doesn’t matter because I have The Answer.
PS. Did all my knowledge of the magi come from two songs? Probably yes. “We Three Kings” and “The First Noel”. [And also those aren’t really songs about the wisemen – but about Jesus, a star, and 3 specific gifts]. That’s a bit of an exaggeration – I have Matthew’s Gospel but even then we don’t get much info about the wisemen. But that is kind of the point, isn’t it? The wisemen’s role was to reveal God. It isn’t about them – it’s about Him! They probably understood that very well. And I should take from their example the importance of following God but knowing that my personal knowledge of the unimportant is unimportant – because what I have and what I get to know is The Most Important. I should happily trust and follow just like three very wise men before me.
The Visit of the Magi.*1When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod,* behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,2saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star* at its rising and have come to do him homage.”a3When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.4Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.*5b They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.”9After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.10They were overjoyed at seeing the star,11* c and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
The Flight to Egypt.13* When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,* and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”14Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.15* He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophetd might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
The Massacre of the Infants.16When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.