Which gospel account has your favorite beginning to the story? John is popular with his poetic and mysterious prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” Luke tells all of the back story and gives us the shepherds, the angels, and the manger. Mark skips the whole birth account and begins right with John the Baptist preaching a message of repentance. Matthew opens with a genealogy, a brief account of Joseph’s angel-induced decision to remain married to the pregnant Virgin Mary, and then the rather detailed story that we have as today’s gospel lesson—the tale of the Three Wise Men.
I’ve always loved the wise men. As a child, I liked the fact that they brought really good birthday presents to the baby Jesus. Anyone who brings a box of gold to a birthday party is ok in my book. As I grew older and learned that Epiphany has its own celebration—that the wise men don’t make it to the manger scene until the 12 days of Christmas are over—I became even more fascinated. And, now that I’ve been doing this church-thing professionally for a while, I’m even more struck by their presence in the story, but now my interest is focused on why Matthew bothered to write them into the account at all.
Why did Matthew tell the story of the wise men? Regardless of how you read the bible—whether as a literal historical account or a collection of myths or, more likely, somewhere in between—I think you’d admit that the answer has to be something more than “because that’s how it happened.” Matthew is the only one who mentions the wise men. They feature in his account because they add something to the way he wants us to read the story. Even Luke, with all his detail and backstory, didn’t bother. So why the magi?
Matthew starts with a genealogy. In fact, his opening words are, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” That’s not as memorable as John’s opening line, but it’s just as distinctive. Matthew sets his whole gospel in the context of the Jewish Jewishness of Jesus. He is signaling to the reader that, whatever happens on the ensuing pages (or scroll-equivalent), everything ties back to Jesus’ ancestry and his identity as a descendent of Abraham and David. And, sure enough, Matthew’s gospel account is the one in which Jesus sends out the disciples and says, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans.” Throughout his account, Matthew presents to us a thoroughly Jewish-focused Jesus—at least until the Great Commission at the end, when Jesus finally sends them out to make disciples of all nations.
And that’s why the magi are so important—because they aren’t Jewish. They’re strangers. They’re foreigners. They’re practicers of some weird, forbidden, astrological religion. Yet they show up in a beautiful, God-led, allegorical way. As the age-old name for Epiphany suggests, this was the “manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.” So no matter how exclusive the gospel story might seem—no matter how ethnically focused Jesus’ ministry might be—the reader already gets a glimpse of a bigger picture.
It’s no accident that Matthew uses a popular story to portray the foreigners in the text. How can you not love the magi? Everyone loves that part of the story. But, because we read it so close to Christmas, we miss the chance to celebrate what it really represents: the good news of Jesus Christ is not and cannot be restricted to the few but must be shared with all.
Today happens to be September 11. For the first time in as long as I can remember, there don’t seem to be a lot of documentaries on television, and I haven’t heard of any public remembrances that are planned for today. Maybe that’s because we now have our hands full with Syria. Maybe it’s because we’re tired of reliving the past. Maybe it’s because we’ve become desensitized to the memory of that day and need to be reminded of its horror. Or maybe it’s because we’re moving away from a reliving of the day and its aftermath and toward a deeper, more reflective appreciation for the anniversary itself.
For me, the months after 9/11/01 were confusing. Part of me felt wounded and attacked but unable to identify clearly who it was that had hurt me. Part of me was ready to move on. Part of me was concerned at the heightened sense of American exclusivity and protectionism that manifested itself in the flags that were hung everywhere—especially by store owners who appeared to be of “foreign descent.” Part of me was repulsed by the fact that I started scanning crowds at ballgames or airports or shopping malls, looking for the terrorist among us.
We haven’t added 9/11 to our liturgical calendar. It still seems a little early to do that. But maybe the story of the magi is the perfect gospel lesson for today (a coincidence in the Daily Office). Foreigners from the east are led by God to the site of Jesus’ birth in order to balance the ethno-exclusivity of the gospel story by reminding us that God works in and through people we might never expect to see at the manger.