When we arrive at the narrative that recounts Epiphany, Matthew 2, the gift-giving we find here among the Magi isn’t about giving thanks, strictly speaking. There’s something different going on and it is called worship. The Magi come bearing gifts as a tangible expression of their devotion, allegiance, and worship.
The gold, frankincense and myrrh were not gifts of gratitude that said, “Thank you Jesus for saving me.” Jesus hadn’t saved anyone at this point. Neither were the Magi bearing gifts of love. They had never even met Jesus let alone where coming with gifts to show their love for him. At this point the only thing we know for sure that they’ve received from God concerning Christ is a stellar GPS system that flickered in and out. So instead, these were gifts suitable for the dignity and honor of One, who by the bare virtue of their person and exalted title, is to be worshiped through gift-giving. Christ is worthy of worship simply because he is Christ the Lord.
The Bible’s theology of gift sets the pattern for understanding the world aright by opening and closing the narrative of the Incarnation of the divine Savior-King with gift-giving: first from the Father who so loved the world that he gave the Son, then with the human response exemplified by the Magi who brought gifts in a lavish and yet thoroughly appropriate act of worship. Matthew’s account is intimate, by implication, that we ought to be “wise ones” who, in knowledge of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, worship him through gift-giving for no other reason than Jesus is worthy as God, as Lord, as Redeemer.
Because of its theology of gift, the importance of recounting and celebrating the Magi episode was massive for nearly fifteen hundred years. But it has become increasingly unimportant as we transform more into a society of takers rather than givers, the served rather than those who serve. And, so, the biblical account (as well as significance) is overshadowed by unsubstantiated apocryphal speculations. There are all kinds of historical or at least unbiblical inaccuracies regarding the Magi found in Christmas crèches that detract from the gospel of God’s giving and the life of the disciple giving through worship.
What kind of errors? Here’s a few: the Magi don’t show up a couple hours after the shepherds from the fields, or even a couple days or weeks. Their visit comes months, perhaps as many as two years later. This is why on Epiphany nativity scenes remove the shepherds. And when the Magi do find the Christ child in Bethlehem, Jesus and his family are living in a house, not a stable. The stable was likely a relatives downstairs, used for animals but made make-shift for the Holy Family. In no time at all, Joseph had his family in an extended family compound or single-family residence of their own.
Another problem is the number of Magi. Texts from the second-century say there were more in this gift-bearing entourage. We’ve taken the number three simply by counting the kinds of gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh; 1, 2, 3. They weren’t kings either. The moniker, Magoi, gives us the Latin, magnus (“great”), from which we get words like magnanimous, magnificent, majestic, magical. Used here, it denotes great men of learning in philosophy and astronomy, not royalty. Herodotus says that the Magi were priests of the race of Medes and, so, it is likely that these men were Babylonian astrologer-priests of great wealth, privilege and standing. Herod respects their elevated status as foreign dignitaries and assists them. But they aren’t kings. In fact, nowhere is the term “magi” used for royalty. That association was made by an early Christian commentator and it stuck in the imagination of the Church.
The Magi stagger into the capital city of Jerusalem assuming that since the star’s presence had been intermittent, the newborn king would be present there. But Herod, of all people(!), conveyed to them the prophecy from Micah 5:2, that the great ruler of Israel would come from Bethlehem in the land of Judea. They were close, but not there yet. One suspects that they weren’t five minutes out of Herod’s company and were pouring through the Hebrew Scriptures, devouring the prophecies about the promised Messiah and expecting, as their gifts evidence, to meet YHWH in human flesh.
Meeting the crown prince is one thing; meeting God in the flesh, as the Light of the Gentiles and the Savior of the world is another.
At this point, they may have detoured to the high-end shops of Jerusalem to upgrade their gifts before heading to Bethlehem. Meeting the crown prince is one thing; meeting God in the flesh, as the Light of the Gentiles and the Savior of the world is another. Their gifts were meant to bespeak of the greatness and glory of the One they were about to encounter, gifts that prophetically bespoke of his mission, too. Put differently, they brought the right stuff to worship.
Through the prophetic word of God, by way of the illumination of the Holy Spirit, they know they are about to encounter Immanuel: God with us. Matthew says in verse 11 that they worshipped him, they bowed with their heads to the ground, which wasn’t what you did for kings, but the posture of worship for God. Then they opened their gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gifts are significant. The Church father, Origin, explains the meaning behind each gift:
Gold was the bespeak of royalty – only the King bore a scepter of gold; vassal kings gave greater kings gold and did homage in gifts of gold. Here they declare on behalf of the Gentile world that Jesus is King — not only of the Jews but also the Gentiles. Because he is King, they worship.
Frankincense simply means “pure incense,” unalloyed incense, was of the highest, finest quality. The use of incense was reserved almost exclusively in the ancient world for ceremonial worship. It represents then as it does now prayers, petitions, supplications, thanksgiving and adoration rising to heaven before the throne of God. This gift worships the deity of Christ. Because he is God they worship.
Myrrh is an extraordinary perfume; it was the possession of nobility, exceedingly expensive and bespoke of Christ’s humanity. Like the ointment lavished upon the feet and head of Jesus by Mary Magdalene, myrrh was used to prepare bodies for burial. Myrrh is the symbol of what it means to be human in the fallen world; it is a symbol of not mortality itself but of mortality being sweetened by hope, but something far more pleasant — by life itself. They worship the God-Man, as the only hope to save us from judgment and death. They worship Jesus because he is the last Adam, the last hope of the world.
We, then, are today’s Magi: we worship Christ because of who he is.
The legacy the Magi leave you, Gentile Christians, calls you to worship with the same kind of gifts:
The gold of our worship is faith. It is the highest most regal form of worship because it says “yes and amen” to the presence and promises of God in Christ. Faith says the King is true; the person and work of Christ is truth; and nothing glorifies the King like having confidence that he is as His Word.
The frankincense of our worship is the sacrificial prayers, praise, thanksgiving, and offerings.
The myrrh is the good works, the service you provide for and to one another, both directly and indirectly through the support of Christ’s Holy Church. You worship him as you love one another in thought, word and deed.
We, then, are today’s Magi: we worship Christ because of who he is. This is why we gather and yet in gathering to give of our voices, give of our time, give of our abilities to the benefit of the Church of Christ, indeed, give out of the abundance that we have received, we are at the same time totally out-giving. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).