Is it true? Is it true, this fantastic story of wise men from the East coming to worship the baby Jesus? Before we simply dismiss this as a piece of beautiful but fanciful writing on the part of St Matthew in his Gospel, we do need to remind ourselves that the Middle Eastern world of two thousand years ago was very different from Western Europe in 2020.
Gentile da Fabriano: Adorazione dei Magi [Public domain]
There were Wise Men – Magi, astrologers – in abundance in the ancient world, they did study the stars, they did believe that important messages came to them in that way, they were prepared to travel long distances in search of the truth; further, it appears that at about the time of Jesus» birth, there were strange phenomena apparent in the stars, even if we now know that a star would not literally go in front of people to guide them; we also know that Herod the king really was paranoid – he trusted no one and in the process had his wife and mother in law and three of his sons assassinated.
For all these reasons, therefore, and, yes, recognising that to the modern mind there are problems with the story, we still should not be too ready to dismiss it as a mere flight of fancy.
Further, beyond the literal level of the text, there are important religious truths contained in this passage. To take just one: to state the obvious, these men were not Jews. It is one of the wonders of Christianity that it exists at all. At the time of the first Pentecost, and for some years afterwards, it was really little more than a Jewish sect. Had it remained so, it would almost without question have died out when the Romans smashed the Jewish nation in the year AD70. But before then, men of vision, and notably St Paul, had helped the new faith to break the bonds of Judaism and set it on the path to becoming a faith for the whole world.
The point about the Epiphany is that, right from his birth, the Lord Jesus is shown to be Lord of all creation, and not simply another Jewish prophet. The Wise Men come looking for the one born King of the Jews, but they acknowledge his dominion over them as non-Jews also as they present their gifts to him. This child born in obscurity to a humble Jewish family is to change the world, and the world, in the shape of the Wise Men comes to pay him homage.
Our task is twofold: first to join with the Wise Men in the symbolic offering of our lives to the Lord Jesus, but second to play our part in the ongoing revealing of Jesus to the world, for there is great ignorance about who he is, ignorance as great as that shown by Herod. And we will be doing our part by the kinds of lives we lead and by the words we say.
As St Paul puts it, by virtue of our baptism we are all ambassadors for Christ, and we must take this calling not as an imposition but as a wonderful opportunity to bring Christ to the world, and the world to Christ.
Fr Edward Bryant,