Bringing the Gifts
Episode 19 – January 6, 2019
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The Great Wilderness – “Miles of Trees”
Daughter – “The Woods”
Reading No. 1
Matthew 2:1-12 The wise men come and present their gifts
Read by Rev. Anne Hoganson, at the Stanfield International Airport in Halifax, Nova Scotia
Reading No. 2
The Mirror by Rumi
That was Anne Hoganson, at the Stanfield Airport, reading from the Gospel of Matthew. I’m not sure we’ve met Matthew yet on this podcast. Last year, Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary schedule of scripture readings, we were mostly hanging out with Mark. Remember, Mark was the earliest Gospel to be written, around 70CE., or approximately 40 years after Jesus’ death. Now, Mark does not include a birth story – it begins talking about John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke (whose birth narrative we heard last episode) are the only canonical gospels – the only accounts of Jesus that made it into The Bible – to talk about a baby Jesus. That’s not to say there aren’t other accounts of Jesus’ life as an infant, and I’m hoping to delve into those on another episode because they are quite fascinating.
But for now, we have Matthew and Luke’s birth stories, each written about 85 or 90 CE. But these two birth stories are very different – and they’re different because each writer is trying to establish different things about Jesus. If you think back to last episode and Luke’s birth narrative, we have an angel coming to Mary, saying she will bear a child. We have the story of Elizabeth and Zachariah. We have a census and Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem from Nazareth. We have them laying Jesus in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. We have shepherds – some of the most socially reviled people of their day – meeting an angel and then hastily rushing to Bethlehem to meet the baby.
None of this is in Matthew’s account. What we do have at the beginning of Matthew’s story, is a long genealogy, often referred to as the “begats”. Mary and Joseph seem to already be in Bethlehem – they don’t end up in Nazareth until later. And we have this story of the magi, or wise men, coming to visit Jesus. Nowhere does this story say there are three dudes. Nowhere does it give their names. But they do bring gifts – frankincense, myhrr and gold. The traditional interpretation of these gifts says “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal (myrrh was used for embalming, foreshadowing Jesus’ death); and incense, as to a God.”
There’s been a running joke, perhaps for centuries about the impracticality of giving a baby things like fine perfume and jewelry. A meme floats around Facebook every Christmas. The caption reads something like, “After the wise men left, the wiser women arrived”. The women are seen handing Mary diapers, casseroles for the week and lots of formula. I actually thought it was a bottle of wine until I looked up the picture again, which I’ll include in the show notes. I guess that says more about what I would have found helpful in the time after birth…
What’s has happened over the years is that these two very different versions of Jesus’ birth have been kind of…mushed together into a folk theology. This folk theology gives us our nativity scenes and the story of Jesus’ birth we expect to see in the Christmas pageants each year. But whether we are talking about Luke or Matthew’s birth narrative, it is important to note that almost certainly, none of these events are historically accurate. There is no record of a census at that time. Jesus probably wasn’t even born in Bethlehem. There is no account of any significant celestial event occurring in the year Jesus is thought to have been born.
But something doesn’t need to be historically accurate for it to be true.
So, the wise men see a star in the East and they tell Herod, who sneakily implores them to find the baby so that he may pay homage, even though it’s clear to the reader he wishes to do no such thing. The wise men find the baby, give him some expensive gifts, but go home via another route because they (smart guys that they are) realize Herod’s true intent. That’s where the lectionary reading ends.
What comes next is state-sanctioned genocide. After the wise men leave, Joseph is warned in a dream that he, Mary and the baby need to get out of Judea now and flee to Egypt. Herod orders every boy under two killed. Matthew then quotes from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Jeremiah:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.
Refugees in Egypt, Jesus’ family does not return until after Herod’s death, and only at that time do they settle in Nazareth.
The cosmic birth narrative is a common one in Hellenistic writing, and Matthew is using his version of Jesus’ birth to say something about the nature of Jesus. Matthew is setting Jesus up to be presented as the new Moses for a primarily Jewish audience. He is setting Jesus up to be a King – but not the kind of King one might expect.
So there may not have actually been any magi. Jesus may not have been born in a stable. Thousands of years of cultural influence have shaped how we interpret these stories. However, I would gently suggest…it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether these events historically occurred or not. But what would it mean if they did? If this is a story we listen to year in and year out, that we’ve placed meaning and significance to, what does that say about how we should be living in the world? If we’re telling stories about a poor family being refused shelter, forcing the woman to give birth in a stable, should that not inform how we approach hospitality to those lacking in resources? Jesus and his family fleeing to another country to escape violence…should that not inform how we view our role in the plight of refugees around the world?
I have a very dear friend whose 5-year-old son asked over Christmas about Jesus and the whole Son of God thing. My friend has very little background in church or the often perplexing quirks of the Christian faith. She told him that Jesus was born among animals, with very little fanfare, and that people feel bad about it now because he was supposed to be the Son of God. Then she added…”But it hasn’t really changed hospitality for poor women and their children…which doesn’t really add up for me.”
There was no mic in this conversation, but if there had been, it would have dropped right there.
If we claim these stories as our own, I don’t see how they can’t influence how we interact with the world.
So, I want to go back to the impractical gifts of the wise men. The frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Frankincense and mMyrrh are not only expensive incense and ointments, but they were also traditionally used in postnatal care because of their anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties. In today’s reading, when the wise men arrive, they kneel down to Mary. What would it mean if these powerful men were bringing gifts to aid in Mary’s healing? What would it mean if the gold the wise men presented was the means for Jesus’ family to survive those years as refugees in Egypt? What would it mean if these seemingly strange baby shower presents were not simply symbolic gestures of Jesus’ status? The gifts of the magi to Jesus were keeping his family alive.
Robb McCoy is a minister with the United Methodist Church in the United States. He also publishes a blog called “Fat Pastor” which happens to be my favourite name of a Christian blog ever. A few years ago, his congregation began commemorating Epiphany by collecting baby items for mothers in local shelters, because like the wise men bringing gifts of healing to Mary, taking care of mothers is taking care of their children. I think I’d like to take on this tradition with Living Presence next year.