Gifts Come In Small Packages”:
The Story of the Magi’s Visit in Matthew 2:1-12
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
My partner complains that I always manage to turn our annual vacation into a religious pilgrimage. When I propose a place for us to visit, he jokingly asks: “Okay, whose saint is buried there?” or “Whose relics of saints would you like to see?” In all honesty, he is right. So a couple of years ago, I said “Let’s go to Amsterdam.” Now, Amsterdam certainly has a reputation but it surely does not have the reputation as a holy site for a pilgrimage. And so off we went. And no sooner had we landed that I realized that the German city of Cologne was only a couple of hours away, and I always wanted to go there to visit the Carmelite monastery where one of my favorite saints, the Jewish convert to Catholicism, Edith Stein, lived as a nun before she left for Holland where she was arrested by the Gestapo to be deported and martyred in Auszwitch. Well, I was able to convince my partner to go. Now when you walk off the train station in Cologne, you are suddenly overwhelmed by the sight of the magnificent, and beautiful cathedral of Cologne. And by the high altar of this eight hundred year old cathedral we saw a gold casket containing some relics. My partner asked, “Whose bones are in there?” I said, after reading the inscription, “The Three Kings. You know, The Three Wise Men.” He said, “They sure traveled far!”
Who were these “wise men” bearing gifts in adoration of the child Christ? But I think the more important question is what is the significance of this outlandish story for the life of the Church, and even for the world. I have a few observations that I want to share with you.
We imagine the magi according to popular Christian art which often depicts them as old, mighty and rich kings arriving from the distant orient, traveling in opulent caravans, dressed in rich and fine robes of gold, and silk, bedecked with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires, accompanied by a large entourage of servants and slaves, bearing such exotic gifts to the poor redeemer child. In popular Christian tradition, these wise men came to have the names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, who came, supposedly from distant lands such as Persia, Arabia, or even India. Yet, the Gospel of Matthew is in fact bereft of such details, details that were later elaborations. Matthew’s Gospel does not name them at all. The Gospel does not exactly say from what countries they came, only mentioning that they traveled from apo anatolon, from the East. Nor did Matthew say that there were three magi. The Eastern Christian tradition believes that there were twelve. Nor did Matthew describe them as male or even educated, learned and wise. Two years ago, the Church of England found itself in a controversy because of its decision to use the designation, “magi” rather than the Old English, “Wise Men” in its revision of the prayer for the feast of the Epiphany. The Church of England justified its action saying (and I quote here) “the visitors were not necessarily wise nor necessarily men.” Matthew’s Gospel does not say they were rich kings, but refers to them as “magoi.” Interestingly, Matthew did not apply the title, basileus, king, a title that he used to refer to, for instance, Jesus, the King of the Jews, or to King Herod; nor did Matthew use the word phronimos that he usually used to refer to wise people. He simply referred to them as “magoi.” Now who were the “magoi” in Matthew’s time?
The term “magus” was not exactly flattering, or positive. It was a term applied mostly to sorcerers, astrologers, magicians, diviners, fortune-tellers, court jesters, or entertainers. Both Jews and Christians in Matthew’s time viewed magi with suspicion, because they were perceived to be charlatans, or teachers of false religions. (Remember the notorious magician, Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-24? Magus, meaning magician, is the singular for the word magi.) So, it is conceivable that the magi were people who were not highly respected; perhaps they were even despised, even considered to be shady characters, living in the margins of society and religion. There was nothing extraordinary about them except perhaps their claim of magical powers. But other than that, they were ordinary, simple folk. Yet, Matthew gives this despised class of ordinary, simple and lowly people great importance; despite of who they were, they were chosen, their hearts were prepared by God to receive the grace of Christ.
one is ever outside God’s love and grace is Matthew’s message.
But that God chose to manifest himself first to simple, ordinary, low class,
unsophisticated folk was quite a radical message in a hierarchical society
of Roman Empire. Matthew’s message is radical even in our own time.
While God loves everyone, God has a special love, concern and care for those
lowly folk who are despised and look down upon by society and religion. This
is a God who loves what the NT scholar, John Dominic Crossan, called the “nobodies,”
Searching for the God who calls them, they come bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Now, a lot of things have been said about the nature, meaning or symbolism of these gifts. For example, the famous Christmas song, We Three Kings, says that gold symbolized the kingship of Christ, the frankincense referred to the divinity of the infant Christ, and the myrrh was a prophecy foretelling the crucifixion of the infant Messiah. But Matthew probably did not have these in mind at all. The gifts of gold, myrrh and incense were not extraordinary, exotic gifts. They were the stuff that could be readily found in everyday life. It did make sense to give a new mother these sorts of stuff. A family with one more mouth to feed would certainly need more money; so gold would be a good gift. Myrrh was sort of an antibacterial herb medicine, something to give to a mother to bathe her child to protect him from illness. And in a home with a child who was not toilet trained, incense would make a nice gift (a deodorizer). Or perhaps, the simpler explanation of these gifts is that these things- gold, incense, and myrrh- were simply the everyday, ordinary tools of the trade or craft of a magus. These things were part of their livelihood these things simply represented what they do; these gifts simply represented their life. They were simply offering as a gift to God their ordinary life, their very ordinary self. I think the Epiphany hymn, Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning, best captures the message of Matthew: “Shall we then yield him in costly devotion, odors of Edom and offerings divine; gems of the mountain, and pearls of the ocean, myrrh from the forest, and gold from the mine?” Then the hymn continues with an answer: “Vainly we offer each ample oblation, vainly with gifts would his favor secure, richer by far is the heart’s adoration, dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.” The greatest offering or adoration we can give God is nothing but our own self, our own life in all its beauty, ordinariness, sinfulness and brokenness. Even if we (and others) find ourselves undesirable, unlovable and unacceptable, to God we are always his beloved ones.
But of course if there is anything we do not want to be, it is being simple or ordinary, or vulnerable. But the danger also lies in believing that the things we think make us extraordinary- whether that be money, material things, power, or even our spiritual accomplishments- that these things increase our human worth, and that that the lack of these diminishes our worth or the worth of others. Perhaps, in the eyes of many people, but not so in the eyes of God. There is no thing we can do, no thing we can bring to God that will make him love us more than he does now.
So let us simply present ourselves in adoration of God giving him the gift of our poor selves; and God himself would present, and give himself to us not for any other reason than because he simply loves us for who we are, his beloved children.
2007 Noel E. Bordador
The Rev. Noel E. Bordador is a queer Filipino Episcopal worker-priest in the Diocese of New York.