The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Magi Bearing Gifts

January 6, 2014

[Yes, my friends, I have been aware for some time now that I started counting my twelve days of Christmas on the wrong day, the day after Christmas. Technically today is the first day of the season of Epiphany, not the last day of Christmastide. So humor me while I pretend that the visit of the wise men is the climax of the Christmas season. I’ll do better next year!]

This twelfth day of Christmastide is a special day on my personal calendar. Eighteen years ago on this date my father died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. At the time, I processed his swift departure from this life with gratitude for his own Epiphany. For all the fears we carry about death, the Christian belief that when we die we shall see Jesus is the most comforting of all. We so often hear the words “So-and-so is in a better place now,” and this well-meaning cliché is not untrue. But what is really a balm to the soul is to know that our Christ-believing loved ones are with a better Person!

The wise men made their trek west, following the star of Bethlehem, to Jerusalem where they met with King Herod. 01.06.14 magi574As I commented yesterday, this was a logical stopover for the strangers, since they were looking for “the King of the Jews.” But when they got there, it was clear they were in the wrong place talking to the wrong person. They were looking for Another, and with the clues they gleaned from Scripture with the help of Teachers of the Jewish Law, they realized this and moved on to where Jesus was.

[T]hey set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage (lit. worshiped). Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:9-11 NRSV)

The chronology is a little confusing, so let us ponder a moment where and when this might have taken place. For this we must weave Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts together.

We assume that the star did not appear until the night of Jesus’ birth, and only then, after some consultation did the Magi proceed on their journey. Depending on how far they came, and assuming a pace of 20 miles per day, it would have taken them at least 25 days to make a 500-mile journey. This would put their arrival in Bethlehem within the 40-day period after his birth, prior to the purification rites in Jerusalem (Luke 2:22f). However, Herod’s murder of the “innocents” (all babies born within the last two years) suggests that it took a lot longer for the Magi to arrive in the region and locate the child, and that in fact they may have found Jesus at the family home in Nazareth sometime within the first two years of his life. Herod pointed them to Bethlehem, according to the prophecies; but Matthew says the star “stopped over the place where the child was. . . . on coming to the house, they saw [him].” It was no “house” in Bethlehem, so there is a possibility that this wonderful encounter took place at the family home another eighty miles north, in Galilee.

The important thing is this: when they found the Person—the child Jesus—they knew they had arrived. When they saw the child with his mother, their first instinct and reaction was to bow down and worship him. Even directed toward a king, this is an amazing acknowledgment. [We are of course aware that the Roman emperors promoted the idea of their own deity, and required what was close to “worship” as a result.] I love the way this scene was portrayed in the five-part miniseries last year, The Bible. The awe and wonder on the foreigners’ faces was truly an insight into what was really happening that day.

And with their worship came very valuable gifts: gold (a precious metal), incense (an aroma), and myrrh (a balm). Not the most practical gifts for a newborn, but meaningful as signs of the esteem and power ascribed to the child. And we cannot miss the connection with the End of the Story: myrrh was used to anoint Jesus’ body upon his death by crucifixion (John 19:39).

When we come to Christ, when we gather for worship, the Magi remind us it is not good to come empty-handed. It is a sign of our esteem for Jesus Christ and recognition of his power that we bring a gift. This may be a tithe, a donation of food for the poor, or some other tangible offering; but when we come bearing gifts for God, we are making a statement and offering our hearts in fully engaged worship. [This is why I do not think churches should rely solely on electronic giving for receiving their members’ tithes and offerings. It’s important for people to bring something to church with them. Just saying . . .]

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring Him a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
But what can I give Him? I will give Him my heart.

At the very least, we bring to worship our very heart, which gets to the central meaning of the day. We are invited not primarily to a place (the church) but to a Person (the Christ). We are asked to bring our relational gift, our “heart” (not to mention our mind, soul, and strength) with which to love him. This is what the Magi brought when they bowed down to worship. Forget the material things, their gift to the newborn King was their loyalty and allegiance! And this is what we, too, may bring with us when we approach the throne of grace and the seat of God’s mercy.


4 Responses to “The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Magi Bearing Gifts”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    Straighten me out, please. Does Ordinary Time begin after the Epiphany Jan 6? When does Christmastide end? Being with a better Person sure beats the idea of a “better place.” Grateful for this “heart message” and supportive clarity for bringing tithes/offerings in person to worship [online offerings help to ensure the bills and salaries are paid on time which rings hollow for me].

  2. emd5542 Says:

    And I am already anticipating your messages for Advent/12 Days of Christmas/Epiphany 2014-2015

  3. Jodie Says:

    I’ve always enjoyed the Griffith Observatory narration of some of the known astronomical observations that happened in the sky round about the time of the birth of Jesus:

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