Our story today is about the Magi, those mysterious wise men from the East, who ventured far from home, to follow a sign in the sky, a star they believed would lead them to a child born to be the king of the Jews. This story has inspired pilgrims, and other people of faith, for thousands of years.
Over the millennia, many details have been added to the original story in Matthew’s Gospel. We don’t actually know how many made the journey. The idea of three comes from the number of gifts. Our tradition says three, and calls them Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, but those names were added to the story sometime around the 6th century. In some traditions they talk about there being as many as 12 travelers.
There is no further mention in the Bible of the Magi after they leave Mary and Joseph and the baby, and having been warned in a dream, head home a different way to avoid King Herod. Traditions built up over time to continue their story. Some believe the Magi continued to travel for many years, and they met up with the Apostle Thomas while he was on his way to India, after the first Easter. That legend goes on to says that Thomas baptized them, and they later became bishops.
Another tradition says Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine found their buried remains, had them exhumed, and brought to Constantinople. Later the bones were moved again, to the Shrine of the Three Kings at the Cologne Cathedral. According to tradition the remains of each Magi were carried on a different boat, which is reflected in the old carol “I saw three ships come sailing in”.
Epiphany, the name for the day when we tell the story of the Magi, is not a Bible word. It has its roots in the Ancient Greek words epi which means upon, and phaino, which means shine or appear. It was used to describe the sun’s appearance at the dawn of a new day, or revelation or manifestation of God to a worshipper, which is also called a theophany.
The celebration of Epiphany highlights the idea that God’s love as we learn of it through Jesus was not just for the Jews. The story of these holy ones of another religion bearing gifts for the newborn babe was interpreted to mean that Jesus’ message is God’s gift to all people. The image of the star appearing, and being noticed by non-Jewish people said that God’s light and love is shining for us all. In Jesus’ time, and in the centuries after, missionaries took up the work of passing on the message of God’s love, to anyone willing to hear it.
In the earliest Jesus movement, even before people began using the word Christian, followers met together in each other’s homes, or in public places like the courtyard of the synagogue. They did not have buildings, or hymn books, or paid staff. They were just people coming together to pray, to sing, to break bread, and to remember the stories about Jesus. They shared their food and other belongings with people in need. They found hope and meaning in coming together, that gave them strength, and renewed purpose, and courage with which to live their lives.
Over many centuries, the movement of Jesus’ followers grew larger, and more organized. They built places of worship, and appointed shepherds, or pastors, who watched over the people who flocked together. They developed rules about who could speak in worship, and what they should say. There evolved a hierarchical power structure, with regional shepherds, or bishops watching over the local church pastors. But this all happens long after the time described in our gospel story this morning.
The Magi made their pilgrimage, following the star, leaving behind the comforts of home. They could not have known exactly what they would find at the end of the long journey. When they arrived at the place where the star led them, they entered the house, and seeing the child with Mary his mother, they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Such a long journey, and it all culminated in a short moment of paying homage and presenting gifts. And then they left.
Whatever they saw, whatever they knew in their minds, felt stirring in their hearts, and spirits, was enough for them, to validate the long journey. It was enough.
What was it that they saw, experienced, felt, knew, that made it enough? We know that they did not see what modern day pilgrims see when they go to Bethlehem today. Maybe that is for the best. The church that now stands on the traditional site of Jesus’ birth is in the midst of territory under Palestinian control, but surrounded by a wall built by Israel, and an armed force that controls passage in and out of the area.
The church itself, built over the grotto believed to be the original stable, is jointly cared for by three different Christian denominations. The members of these three groups have been known to end up in physical fights over whether or not is okay to move a chair or a ladder, or whether or not one groups hymns are too loud, and are making it difficult for another group to pray. Once a year the groups schedule a day in which they work together with community volunteers to clean the whole church. The Palestinian Police maintain a presence at the church that day, in case the tensions amongst the Christian groups escalate once more.
The pettiness of the fights amongst Christians at the Church of the Nativity is perhaps symbolic of the squabbles different faith groups get into, over who is right about what. These disagreements do little to help or inspire people who are looking for truth and meaning for their lives.
People can always seem to find things to disagree about, which is part of why there are now so many different denominations, all staking their claims on having truth to share about God.
But underneath all the differences, and all the stories, and traditions that have built up over the years, is there something pure and simple and vital, that somehow shines through?
What did the Magi see, when they visited the newborn? What was it that touched their souls?
Ever been in one of those dinner party conversations when someone asks, “If your home was burning down, but all the people had got out safely, and there was time to rescue only one or two possessions, what would you grab?”
Here is the question I want to leave you with this week, and I would love it if you thought and prayed about this, and brought the answer back next Sunday:
What is the essence of our faith? What is the most important thing we have to pass on to the world, and the people around us?