Who does not remember growing up singing about the three Wise guys…Sorry, I meant the three wise men? You remember the tune, “We three Kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar…” All of our créches have those Kings bowing before the Holy Family offering their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. What would our Nativity scenes be like without them? Actually, now that I think about it, the better questions are: “Who are these three Wise men” and “What is Scripture trying to tell us through them?”
To start, we should recognize that the Church found this event so important that the second Sunday following the Solemnity of the Incarnation is reserved for the universal Church to celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany. At the core, it is a celebration of not only the revelation of the Christ child to three Kings but a revelation of self-offering of these three strangers to the babe of Bethlehem.
When we investigate further, we first observe that Scripture does not say how many came to adore the Lord. Secondly, while most of our biblical translations say “wise men”, the Holy Writ actually calls them Magi (Greek μάγοι, mago):
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
Antiquity treats the Magi very differently from wise men. Our notion of wise men though, is a result of the 1611 translation of the King James Version Bible. It has been passed on since – much to our detriment.
Magi on the other hand, carried a very different connotation and in fact, penalty. The Magi were actually those associated with the occult and necromancy. Historically, the term was first used to describe the priestly cast in Zoroastrianism. The English term for magic is a result of the practices associated with the Magi.
As you might already know, shepherds were considered the lowest of Jewish society. Rabbinic law recounts that a shepherd’s testimony was not acceptable in court or any legal proceedings. Ironically, Israel’s greatest leader and prophets were shepherds (i.e., King David, Moses, Amos, etc.). Even with their lowly status, it is to the shepherds that the angels first announce our Lord’s birth:
While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:6-15)
Now, there was one group lower than the shepherds. Yep, the Magi. There is an ancient Rabbinic saying that states, “Let anyone who learns anything from a Magi be accursed by God.” Could you imagine what the Jews and Bethlehem were thinking when the shepherds and Magi came to see Jesus? It would be like every junkie, bookie, and gangster showing up at your doorstep in Mayberry.
You may remember the Acts of the Apostles recount that Peter cursed Simon Magus (Acts 8: 9-13) and Paul cursed Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:6-11). The Magi were known for craving control over people and the elements regardless of the cost. And yet, they were the second to submit themselves to the Lord.
We should also clear up the issue concerning their gifts. In the ancient world, it would be inappropriate, down-right insulting actually, to offer a King gifts. Why? Everything in the Kingdom is His. The King to whom you submitted everything you owned was already His possession. And, Jesus, the King of the universe, is there anything material or immaterial that is not His possession? You would, on the other hand, offer a tribute. In other words, the best example of your skills applied to His material. So artists would provide their greatest works, farmers their best produce, and so forth. What did the Magi have to offer then?
Historians share with us that myrrh was used to create the special ink the Magi employed to write their incantations. Gold was then added to the ink to increase the potency of the incantation while frankincense was rubbed into the papyrus to seal and “eternalize” the spell, hex or curse. These offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the King of Kings were not to increase the Holy Family’s wealth or to get an early start on Jesus’ burial, but were the greatest tools of the Magi’s trade. What should this teach us?
Many of us live our lives as if everything we have purchased or that comes into our possession is ours to do with as we please. In a certain and very limited sense, this is true. The first lesson is that it would be more correct, to recognize that we are but stewards of his manifold gifts and graces (1 Peter 4:10). We should adopt a posture of thankfulness and magnanimity with all our possessions because they are not ours. It is the King’s right to reclaim or withhold them at any time. And we should not be upset when it happens because we know that it is also His responsibility to provide for His servants. Jesus reminds us of this when He says,
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles [eagerly] seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. (Matthew 6: 31-33) Emphasis mine.
The second lesson is that all we do is for the tribute of the King whether in work or pleasure – it makes no difference. We should be developing our skills for the service of the King, His Kingdom and the inhabitants of said Kingdom. I think we have forgotten that there is no vacation from our vocation and that all we do is a reflection upon our King.
The Epiphany is a wake-up call. It is a celebration in which we offer the King our best and greatest tribute. And, the only things we have to offer is ourselves and everything we do – without reserve. We are not supposed to give Him our leftovers, but our first fruits.
Maybe, with our families, we can reflect this Sunday on the following questions:
- How do we use our time? Is it used to better ourselves and skills to better His Kingdom?
- Am I developing my talents to use for the King and His Kingdom or do I use them to further my own name in order to build a name and kingdom for myself?
- How do I use the treasure entrusted to me? Do I remember that the money I earn is His anyway and so tithing is a simple act of fidelity since He is responsible for supplying my needs?
 Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism: The Early Period (Brill, 1989, 2nd ed.), vol. 1, pp. 10–11 online; Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: their religious beliefs and practices (Routledge, 2001, 2nd ed.), p. 48 online; Linda Murray, The Oxford companion to Christian art and architecture (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 293; Stephen Mitchell, A history of the later Roman Empire, AD 284-641: the transformation of the ancient world (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), p. 387 online.