The gift of the magi

I hate taking down the Christmas tree.  Most of my friends, it seems, have taken down theirs; ours is still standing.  And yes, I still light it up at night.

It’s not that I mind the work.  Well…OK…I do mind the work a little, though it’s a lot simpler than it used to be.  We have the kind of artificial tree that comes with its lights permanently affixed, so there are no longer any wires to untangle and stow; the tree also separates into smaller sections with branches that fold into a reasonably compact bundle.  The many keepsake ornaments I’ve made over the years are a bit fragile, and need careful packing.  But even that doesn’t really require much effort, just a little organization and a light touch.

The real problem is this: the tree is the last vestige of the Christmas season, and the kid in me doesn’t want it to be over.  But alas, time marches on.  The plan, at the moment, is to take the tree down on January 6th, the day some western church traditions mark as Epiphany, or the revelation of the gospel to the Gentiles, symbolized by the visit of the magi to the Christ child (Matt 2:1-12).  And that affords the opportunity for one last meditation on Christmas before moving on with the ecclesiastical calendar.

Who were the magi?  Matthew gives us precious little to work with, so one is limited to educated guesses based on other sources.  The portrayals we traditionally see on our Christmas cards may have much of the story wrong: although Matthew lists three gifts, he doesn’t say that there were only three magi; they probably weren’t kings; they did not visit at the same time and place as the shepherds, but came to Jesus when the family was lodging in a house (2:11).  Matthew tells us neither their names nor their specific countries of origin.  Endless speculation swirls around other details of the story.  What could it mean that they followed a moving star?  What was the significance of the gifts?  And what did Mary and Joseph do with all that loot? 

There is little that can be said with any certainty.  At best, the most likely scenario seems to be that the magi were astronomers or astrologers from foreign lands east of Bethlehem, who looked to the stars for portents of great events (here we can see the distant origins of our English word “magic”).  Beyond that, who knows?

No matter.  Matthew seems less interested in the specific identities of the magi than in using them as a foil for the lostness and impotence of King Herod.  Here is a man who holds the title of king by Roman edict, in appreciation of his iron-fisted ways.  His problem, however, is that he has neither the love nor the loyalty of the people he governs.  Small wonder that he goes on full alert when important-looking strangers hit town and start asking questions about the one who was born to be king of the Jews–which he knows means the real king, the one who would be deserving of the title.

Herod uses all his wiles, from deception to brutality, to outwit the magi and eliminate his rival to the throne.  All to no avail.  Herod may have the earthly authority to order the slaughter of innocent children (2:16), but he cannot defeat a God who quietly orchestrates events by warning people as they sleep (2:12, 13, 19).  In the end, Matthew simply tells us that Herod died (2:19), and he is forgotten, as the story moves on swiftly without him.

Right from the beginning of his gospel narrative, Matthew sets up Jesus as the true Messiah-King.  The genealogy (1:1-17) points in that direction.  The story of the magi emphasizes it.  Together with his constant reference to the fulfillment of ancient prophecy (1:22-23; 2:6, 18, 23), Matthew seems to be suggesting that if God’s people had really been paying attention, they would have known.

Herod was too besotted with power to know or to care.  Who got it right?  Some Gentile astrologers.  Go figure.

As a cautionary tale, this episode in Matthew’s gospel should make us wonder: isn’t there at least a little bit of Herod in all of us?  There certainly is in me.  If I haven’t yet sunk to Herod’s level of cruelty, it’s not necessarily because I’m a better person.  It may simply be that I’ve never been exposed to the corrosive temptation of holding much power and the rewards it can bring.  It’s easy to dismiss Herod as a tyrannical despot.  But there are less spectacular ways than his to be arrogant and manipulative; sin makes mini-Herods of us all.  That’s the bad news.

But the good news is that we belong to a God who works in mysterious and unexpected ways to bring us into his kingdom.  We who are Gentiles have been grafted into God’s people by his grace (Rom 11:11-24), and by grace alone, leaving no room for pride or arrogance, only wonder.  We’ve been adopted into the family as Abraham’s descendants, not by actual lineage, but by faith (Rom 4:9-17).

Whatever the significance of the magi’s gifts to the child, their story is a gift to us.  It is, as with all true gifts, the grace of God working in human history to bring about his good purposes.

Thanks be to God.