- "The Adoration of the Magi", from The Très Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry, ca. 1412-1416
Matthew 2: 1-12
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet. 6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. 7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. 9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
The Feast of the Epiphany brings us to the most wondrous and yet troubling event in the whole narrative of Christ’s nativity. Of course, the narrative’s very beginning, the annunciation of God coming to share our human condition and dwell among us, is truly the Great Mystery, more miraculous than the journey and adoration of the wise men we celebrate on January 6—but it is bathed in the light of the most familiar, intimate and loving occurrence in human life, the birth of a child to a young couple. And the incidental features of the story are also familiar even across two millennia, down to Mary tenderly remembering all of the details of the birth of her first child “and [pondering] them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19).
With the Epiphany, though, we move into something deliberately strange, beginning with the mysterious appearance of the star in the east and the arrival of the intriguing figures of the wise men or magi. We know nothing about them except that they come from the east and that they have been granted an insight, however dim or partial, into the significance of Jesus’s birth. Even their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh wondrously predict the course of Jesus’ life and its true meaning. And yet, as the first gentiles to receive the message of Christ’s birth, they also represent the beginning of something we now experience as the goal of our love, our actions and devotion—the worldwide human family drawn together under Christ’s reign. And this perspective takes the story beyond the confines of a stable in biblical Judaea and out into the broad night sky with its bright star and glimpse of our loving God’s vast creation.
In all its mystery and wonder, however, the journey of the magi is also troubling, for their appearance in Jerusalem will arouse Herod’s jealousy and fear and lead to one of the cruelest atrocities in the New Testament, the massacre of the innocents—young children born near the sanctity of Christ’s birth and the proclamation of God’s salvation. Thus a story of joy and wonder also reveals the depth of evil that Christ has entered the world to overcome. But against a depraved king surrounded by a corrupt court of hangers on and jostling sycophants this story sets the beautiful Christ Child, surrounded by a loving family and worshipped by those mysterious strangers from the east who are among the first of so many to have their hearts opened to the truth of the Divine Word. Here the image that has always affected me the most in the story is the star in the magi’s night sky. It is not the great burst of glory that overwhelmed the shepherds at Christ’s birth, but a steady, persistent light that draws us on through the darkness, like the magi, to seek what is true and good and loving and kind—Christ himself—and to worship him with everything that we can imagine, say and do.
The picture I have chosen comes from one of the finest Medieval illuminated manuscripts, The Très Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry, a book of hours made in the early 1400s by the three Limbourg brothers, Jean, Paul and Herman. By the Middle Ages, the magi had been made kings in their own right in the popular imagination and had even been given names. Here amid the splendour and magnificent dress of the three kings and their retainers, the Virgin sits lovingly watching the baby Jesus bless those worshipping him.
For a musical selection, I have chosen one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most beautiful sacred cantatas, no. 65, Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (All they from Sheba shall come). It was written for the Feast of the Epiphany celebrated on January 6, 1724 early in Bach’s tenure as Kantor at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. The opening chorus is a noble processional for the magi with hunting horns, chorus and orchestra based upon the prophecy of Isaiah (60: 6) “all they from Sheba shall come: They shall bring gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord.” We then enter the intimacy of the manger in a short chorale that is based on the Christmas song “A Boy is born in Bethlehem.” This is followed by a reflection for bass soloist on how more fitting a heart is than gold for a gift. In a second reflection for tenor soloist, the believer dedicates his whole being to Christ. “Take me as your own. Take my heart as a gift. All, all that I am, all I speak and do and think, shall, my Saviour, alone be dedicated to your service.” A concluding chorale reinforces this message of devotion.
- Dr. Brian Black