Epiphany (Observed).23 “The Real Story of Christmas” Matt 2:1-12
So you know about the magi (the Greek word, it really means magicians not merely wise guys) and the star (a completely supernatural phenomenon not any natural occurring astral event) and you know about the unfortunate business with Herod.
Or should we take a sec on that? OK. The magi saw the star literally “in the rising” which in Greek means both literally, “in the east” and metaphorically a sign star of the King of Judah is on the rise. Now, as magicians, they were, of course, smart. They used their smarts to gain wealth and were kind of like “Hey. This star is that of the King of Kings” (not sure how they figured that out, maybe scriptures, maybe angels, maybe something about the star itself) “so let’s audition for a place in his court and how better to show our skills than to be there at his birth welcoming him?”.
So they are following the star and it leads them to Jerusalem and then they lose it. Cloudy days one after another? Or did it just disappear from the sky? Either way, did they figure it’d done its job and they’re at Jerusalem the city of the King of Israel, and there’s his palace, so we must be here. Where else would the King of Israel be born, right?
So they charge into the palace and go, “We’re here! Presents for the newborn king of Israel!” Only to find a wizened old dude, Herod, and no newborn king. So… awkward. Potentially, fatally awkward when an old, paranoid king gets news a new one is just born. But Herod is smooth. “Oh, no, I’m not upset at the news. In fact, I’ve been expecting him, too. Let me check with my people on his location… OK. They say Bethlehem is the city of David the place the King should be born. Why don’t you just go and locate him and bring me word of him so I can pay my own respects too?”
And they’re much like the guys in “The Hangover” were about Mike Tyson. “You know everyone says Herod is mean and nasty and murderous, but I thought he was a really sweet guy.” Zach Galafanakis knows he’s mean, but he wasn’t on this trip.
Only later are they warned in a dream that Herod is mean, and going to kill the child and them, “So, find another way back home to Persia!” And the massacre of the innocents because the magi were such wise guys they didn’t need to ask directions. Maybe they’ll find a short cut! Men! C’mon! Admit it when you’re lost! Ask directions! It’s the first step to achieving humility and I’m writing a book on humility and how I achieved it, so trust me on this.
The gifts are strange that they bring. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are burial gifts for a king. Like the Egyptians, all the ancient kings were buried with piles of gold to take care of any fees in the underworld and descend like kings. Myrrh and frankincense were to take the stench of death away and perfume the tomb. A very weird gift to bring. But somehow they knew that was the right present.
Oh, and the first line of all our English translations (all of them! King James included!) is wrong. It’s not “after” Jesus was born, because δε, the Greek particle, is just “and” or “then” not “after”. No reason to think they weren’t there on the day, or night. Nothing at all.
Scriptures say nothing of Nativity Feasts, nor of the Apostles observing it. In the early 4th century, we find out the deal. The Greek speaking catholic church celebrated the Nativity Feast from early days. And because they considered Matthew the first and chief Gospel, Mark and and Luke redundant, and John a supplement, they always used Matthew for the Nativity Feast.
This is partly because the Greek Church centered in Alexandria early, and later in Constantinople, was an aristocratic bunch Gentiles more drawn to royal magician-sages, than to semitic shepherd rustics with a little drummer boy in tow as Luke presents.
So, the Greek speaking Eastern catholic church celebrated Christmas on Jan. 6 with the visit of the Magi, while the Latin speaking West (from which our church is descended) very late in the game (4th century) celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25 with Luke 2 and the shepherds.
These dates, BTW, are not based on any historical report of Jesus’ actual birthday. Ancient people didn’t mark or celebrate birthdays. They commemorated famous people on the day of their death and had a tradition that the day of your death was the day you were conceived (they all thought life begins at conception, BTW) so the dates for Christmas were just 9 months forward from Good Friday which the East had as April 6 and the West had as March 25.
Now, no one is more fond of saying “East is least and West is best” than I am, but, in this case, it is obvious the East is correct and the West is wrong. April 6, 30 AD is clearly the day of Good Friday, not March 25. The Greeks were smart, you’ve got to give them that. Smarter than the Latin Westerners.
But no one likes to admit they’ve been wrong about important events; and so Western Christians cling stubbornly to Christmas on Dec. 25 and grudgingly observe Epiphany as the last of the 12 days of Christmas. It’s all politics and cultural defensiveness. Sorry to burst any balloons there.
Of course truly “wise guys” see the magic of Christmas either way. Whether it’s a bunch of rustic bumpkins rushing to the manger, or aristocratic magician kings, we’re all lost fools when it comes to Christ. The great learning of the magi almost got them all killed. And the humility of the shepherds, who simply kneel and adore without thought of bringing a gift or earning an audience or a role in the king’s court is the childlike faith our Lord says all must finally receive in order to be saved.
Still, I’ll admit: I like the magi best. Being over-educated and far from humility, they are my guys. As Evelyn Waugh had Empress Helena say in his eponymous novel as she celebrated Epiphany in Bethlehem at Evening Prayer:
“This is my day,” she thought, “and these are my kind. Like me, you were long and slow in coming. How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts.
“You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star vanished from view. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!
“Yet you came, and were not turned away. You, too, found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass.
“You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in crime, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents…
“Dear cousins, pray for me,” said Helena… “For his sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”
And what else is there to say to that, but “Amen”?