You may know that Thursday of this past week was what’s known on the Christian calendar as Epiphany, celebrated as the day the Magi arrived to bring their gifts to the infant Jesus. In our New Testament reading today we heard the story. Matthew gives us only a few general ideas about who these men actually were and where they came from, mentioning only that they were from the east and that they somehow had seen a star which they believed foretold of the birth of a king. But the identity, expertise, and intention of these mysterious and learned men have fascinated scholars and theologians from the earliest days of the church.
In Matthew’s narrative, he doesn’t say how many magi there were. We may picture three, because that’s what we’re used to seeing in nativity scenes and singing about in hymns, but in some accounts there was a caravan of magi and in the Syrian Christian tradition, it is commonly believed that 12 magi visited the baby Jesus in the early days of his earthly life.
Some experts believe the men were scholars who came from Persia and were of a priestly line that was exceptionally well-educated and wise. They would have had expertise in many things, including astrology, astronomy, medicine, religion, and magic. In fact some think the gifts they gave were medicinal gifts, helping to prepare and protect the baby for the journey ahead.
The narrative continued to develop more fully over time. In the third century, the idea that they were kings emerged: Melchior was the king of Persia, Gaspar was the king of India, and Balthasar was a king of Arabia or Ethiopia. And those names aren’t written in stone, either. They were attached to the kings in the Western Christian tradition during the 5th century. And those aren’t the only names you’ll hear: Syrian Christians, Ethiopian Christians, and Armenian Catholics all refer to the magi in their own unique ways. And many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi came from China.
In some versions, each of the men have different ages—60, 40, and 20—which is thought to represent the various stages of maturity in humankind. And the gifts Matthew tells us they gave to Jesus are interpreted in different ways too: Gold was seen as a gift given to a king, frankincense was offered as perfume or incense for a god, and myrrh was an anointing oil. And although Matthew doesn’t tell us what happens to the gifts after they were given, two interesting stories that later emerged were that the gold was stolen by the two thieves who were the ones crucified alongside Jesus on the Mount of Olives, and that the myrrh given to the infant that day that was used to anoint Jesus’ body after he was crucified.
I love that idea that all were drawn, all ages, from all places came to witness and worship the birth of pure love in this world. We have no way of knowing which of these possibilities is closest to what actually happened two millennia ago, but here’s the interpretation I like best (and I think George Fox would back me up on this): We are all the magi, watching our world for the arrival of God’s presence and bringing whatever we can—whatever wisdom, whatever talents, whatever hopes we’ve got—to the baby in the manger. We bring to Christ in our moments of silence and our best attempts at listening, at welcoming, at sharing honestly what’s going on inside us. We set aside our pride and our personalities for a time and we rest for a bit in the simple glow of God’s grace. What we give won’t be perfect but we give it with love, and maybe with awe, and certainly with gratitude that God came—and God comes, always–to be with us in this place.
When I was young, maybe seven or eight years old, I watched a Hallmark Christmas special that made a lasting impact on me. Maybe you remember it: It was called The Littlest Angel. It starred Johnny Whitaker, who was also on the show Family Affair at the time. (I always watched that too.) The story was about a young shepherd boy who had just recently arrived in heaven—which in itself bothered me, I couldn’t imagine why a little boy like that would go to heaven so soon. Nothing the little angel did turned out right. He couldn’t polish things or create things or sing like the other angels. And then one day he noticed that all of heaven was preparing for something very exciting and he learned of the coming birth of the Son of God. As imperfect an angel as he was, he wanted to find something to give the baby but kept coming up empty. Over and over he tried, but nothing worked. And finally he decided all he had to give an old beat-up homemade box that he kept the things he loved best in. And when he gave that to the baby, the baby loved it so much that that once dirty, uneven but much-loved box became the actual Star of Bethlehem, guiding the shepherds and the magi all the way to the Christ child.
I love that simple story because it says something I think is deeply true: that God gladly accepts anything we offer—whether it is gold and frankincense and myrrh or a simple moment of silent prayer, an uneven attempt at forgiveness, a squinting effort to see the truth in something. I think God loves all we give Him in much the same way any parent accepts and treasures the loving efforts of an earnest child. That those gifts are received and transformed only adds to their beauty—and that’s the way God does things, God shines them up, perfects them, and hangs them in the sky for all to enjoy, because in God’s realm, nothing good is ever wasted and nothing bad exists. Love leads to more love. Kindness begets kindness, each igniting the spark in another. It’s how the Light spreads and grows.
And in that transforming—when God adds God’s own love to whatever we have to give—our tiny bits of hard-won wisdom can become Godly wisdom. Our tiny glimpses of human truth get connected to God’s unending universal Truth and our understand grows. Our small and uneven attempts at love get added to God’s endless ocean of unconditional, unlimited Love. We find a grace, a tenderness, a caring in our hearts beyond anything we’ve experienced before. God adds God’s own Light to our gifts, whatever they are, and turns them into something magnificent.
We can hear the writer of Isaiah getting at this same idea in our Old Testament reading for today:
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
You can hear in this passage that the human side of things is never perfect. Our strength gives out. We can’t see the road ahead. We grow tired and give up. We stumble and fall. But if we remember God is with us, God lifts us up and renews our strength. It is not our own power we come to depend on, but the promise of God to complete the good work He has begun in us. We give God the best of our efforts—whatever they may be—and God does the rest– lifting, renewing, shining, blessing, connecting—life by life by life.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the word Epiphany in two different but complementary ways:
- First, as “a Christian festival held on January 6 in honor of the coming of the three kings to the infant Jesus Christ” and
- Second, as “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way”
Both of those definitions show that an epiphany is an “Aha!” moment. It is a moment when you suddenly see God in another—the infant Jesus or the person across the breakfast table from you–and you realize it’s a holy moment. That’s an epiphany. Or maybe you suddenly see God at work your own circumstances, something you’ve been struggling with for a while, and the picture sharpens and your understanding grows; things are now very clear. That’s also an epiphany.
George Fox had a classic epiphany—one that meets both of those definitions—on that hillside in England in the mid-1600s. He wrote about it in his journal. After leaving his home and family behind and embarking on a search for the truth of God that kept him wandering, dissatisfied and nearly despondent for four long years, Fox wrote this in his Journal about the encounter that changed everything for him:
Now after I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less and looked more after the dissenting people… As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experientially.
Talk about an “Aha!” moment. George Fox—for so long—had been searching for God, yearning for God, looking for the truth of God’s presence in the reality of his lived experience. That was the gift he was giving God, his effort to find God truly in his heart and life and world. He wasn’t following a star, but he was following his heart, his own inward leading that, for the longest time, had told him, “No, this isn’t it.” He didn’t find his answers in ministers and priests. He didn’t find what he was looking for in the most educated people of his day. But that sense of truth that led him on—the one that kept him miserable because he hadn’t found what he was so earnestly searching for—eventually led him, in faith and truth and near abandon, to the living Christ. At his lowest moment, when he was ready to give up and on the edge of hopelessness, he heard Christ’s voice speak into the darkness of his despair.
There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.
And then his heart leapt for joy. He knew that this was it. This was the truth he’d been searching for. And from that moment, everything changed. His sight was cleared. His struggle ended. The path before him opened, leading all the way to us and the way we worship togethers today.
God draws each of us in similar but unique ways, ways that are fitted perfectly to us, our personalities, our capabilities and beliefs. We continue to learn, to let ourselves be drawn closer to God, through each experience; uneven and imperfect as they may be. God doesn’t expect perfection from us or even true goodness—God asks only our willingness to give what we can, a moment, a hope, an effort—and God will do the rest by providing whatever completes our gift in Love.
For most of us, our gifts to God won’t be anything as outwardly magnificent as the gifts given to a king, but they will be something infinitely more precious. The best gift is the authentic gift of ourselves, the willingness to open our souls to the presence of Christ, just as we are, however we are, today. When we go to God with our flaws and shortcomings, God can complete and heal and transform them. When we are honest about our imperfections, God will shine them up and put them to use for his glory. God is the ultimate recycler and perfecter and it all happens naturally, easily, with grace and in God’s time. In God’s realm, no love is ever wasted and no good intention ever fails. When we discover that—and know it experientially, as George Fox did—it will be an “Aha!” moment that will live in our hearts and light our paths with Love forever after.
- OT Isaiah 40: 28-31
- NT Matthew 2: 1-11