Reading I: Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13
Reading II: Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
Today we mark Epiphany in the church calendar with the reading from Matthew 2:1-12. It is the age-old story of the magi from the East who come to visit Jesus. Our popular impressions of the visit usually come from Christmas cards depicting three figures atop camels crossing the desert following a star. We also sing along with the carol, “We Three Kings,” during the Christmas play when all the people from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke get pushed into one performance. Each of the magi arrive carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But a closer reading of today’s text gives us a rather different picture.
In fact, the magi were not kings, but rather astrologers. The word magi is the plural form of magos, from the Greek meaning astrologer or magician. Thus, because Matthew never explicitly calls them kings in the text, it is better to think of them as astronomers who studied the movements of the stars and planets, giving them the wisdom to interpret a star as a sign that something important had happened. This is consistent with a common idea in antiquity that the birth or death of great people was accompanied by heavenly signs. Matthew doesn’t tell us there were three magi, nor does he mention their names or specifically where they came from. Despite these differences between how we imagine who the magi were and the biblical account from Matthew, their arrival marks an ancient custom of sending a delegate to honor a new ruler in a neighboring region, complete with the sign that this ruler was a great person.
Whether the star the magi were following led them directly to Jerusalem or not, they decided to stop at the regional capital first, to see Herod who was the king of the region. Recalling a prophecy from Micah 5:2 about a Messiah that was to be born in Bethlehem, King Herod tries to trick the magi into telling him where they find this king so that he can worship the new king as well. But as Matthew tells us, the magi didn’t return to King Herod after finding Jesus because they were warned not to in a dream. So, after presenting their gifts to Jesus, they went home by a different route.
So, what are we to make of this story? Both the one from our popular impressions and the account left for us by Matthew reveal on this Epiphany Sunday contrasting agendas between Herod’s amassing of self-serving power and the light of the star showing us the path to the Son of God. Instead of an earthly king, the magi — presumed to be gentiles in a Jewish land — used their astrological expertise to follow a star and show us the true King in Jesus. We celebrate Epiphany to remember Jesus is not only the Messiah of Israel but of the whole world. The star followed by the magi indicates that the Messiah has arrived, fulfilling the prophecy from today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 60:1-6, to which the magi story clearly alludes. The star indicates that the Messiah has arrived! Like the magi of old who by faith followed a star, let us continue to follow the light of Christ wherever it leads us.