ON JANUARY 6, many Christians celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany when we remember the visit to the manger at Bethlehem of the three Magi, or Kings, from the East.
God was fulfilling his plan to make himself known to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, and the Magi came, led by a bright star, to find and worship him.
Not much is really known about these mysterious and fascinating visitors, but centuries of tradition have held that there were three of them because of the three gifts which they brought.
One brought gold, a traditional gift for kings and very appropriate for a baby born to be king.
Another brought frankincense, traditionally a gift for priests, for a child destined to become the greatest of all priests. The third brought myrrh, widely used to purify and to embalm the dead, for the infant born to save us by dying for us.
All these gifts combine wonderfully to represent Christ’s kingship, divinity and suffering.
The Epiphany, the manifestation, or showing forth of the Lord to the Gentiles, would unveil the mystery of Christ to all people. Every Christian is a member of God’s family and shares in his blessings. Our vocation is to love Him, serve Him, and be happy with Him, and the Gentile visitors were open to God’s guidance and revelation and offered Him their worship.
Inevitably, however, it came to King Herod’s ears that men had come from the east and were searching for a little child who was to become King of the Jews.
Herod was an insanely jealous old man, who made short work of anyone or anything if he saw them as a threat. (He murdered his wife, her mother, and three sons; it was said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than a member of his family).
Told, that one day even he would die, he collected together some of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem, imprisoned them and ordered that the moment he died they were all to be killed. He knew well that no one would mourn his death and was determined that tears would be shed by someone, somewhere, even if they weren’t for him.
The three Magi found their way to the stable, guided by the star, fell to the ground and worshipped him, offered their gifts and returned home via a completely different and much safer route, to tell of the wonders they had seen and experienced.
Herod ordered the killing of every baby under two in Bethlehem but he was too late, Joseph had taken Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt.
It is sad to consider the grief and pain of the parents mourning the terrible deaths of those helpless, sad, innocent children. A report from the time said that Bethlehem was only a small place and 40-50 children would probably have been killed. One can’t help calling to mind the words of the much loved and beautiful Coventry Carol:
“Herod the King in his raging,
Charged had this day,
His men of might
In his own sight
All young children to slay.”
The story of these mysterious men from the East brings its own strange beauty to the accounts of Christ’s birth. In its theme of homage, in its contrasts between joy and pain and humility and blessing, it is a fine preparation for the accounts of his life to come.
The gifts to Jesus of gold, frankincense and myrrh perfectly foretold His destiny as true king, perfect priest and supreme saviour but when these three visitors departed they took with them something which surpassed the offerings which they had left.
They had met Jesus, were enriched and blessed by the encounter and they could go on to enrich others.
And all He asks of us is that we try to do the same.
St Margaret’s Church