Today, January 6, 2016, is the 12th day of Christmas, also known as Epiphany for Christians. It is the day we recognize Mathew’s account of the Magi coming to see young Jesus, bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is the time we recognize that Jesus came not only for the Jewish people, but also for the Gentiles, as represented by the wise men. According to the United Methodist Book of Worship, “The Epiphany (Manifestation) of the Lord (January 6), an even more ancient celebration among Christians than Christmas, originally focused on the nativity, incarnation, and baptism of Christ. Today we celebrate the coming of the three wise men (magi), who brought gifts to the Christ child. For this reason, in Puerto Rico and in most Latin American countries this day is observed as Three Kings Day or Dia de Los Reyes. It marks the end of the Christmas Cycle, which began the First Sunday of Advent.”[i] It is interesting that we have some misconstrued information about the wise men based not on Scripture, but on tradition. Most Christians, if asked, will tell you that there were three kings (or wise men or magi, depending on the way the word is translated). Even our United Methodist Book of Worship says that Epiphany is to “celebrate the coming of the three wise men.”[ii] One favorite Christmas song is “We Three Kings.” And in Latino churches, Epiphany is know as Dia De Los Reyes, or Three Kings Day.[iii] Tradition has actually named the three wise men as Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.[iv] However, Matthew 2:1-12 only tells us that there were wise men, without names or numbers to clarify. Why has tradition suggested there were three? Likely, because they brought three gifts.
Another misconception about the magi is when they visited Jesus. Many assume they appeared the night Jesus was born. However, this does not match up with Luke’s Gospel, as Luke has Jesus born in a stable, but the magi visit Jesus in a house. The magi, likely astrologers from modern day Iran, would have had to travel some 800 to 900 miles to get to Jesus, indicating they could have been following the star that led to him for months, even years![v] In fact, I did not put the magi in our Nativity scene until this morning, and even then it was with some feeling of disappointment that my Nativity is a stable and does not include a house.
I find it interesting that Matthew’s account of the three wise men is not found in any other gospel, and that Luke’s account of the shepherds coming to see Jesus is also not found in any other gospel. Each of these gospels was meant to appeal to a different audience. As such, the way the story is passed down in different faith communities allows the aspects of the story most relevant to the community to be remembered. For Luke, it is significant that Jesus be remembered for serving the “least and the lost,” i.e., the shepherds. Matthew, on the other hand, wrote to a community that was being persecuted, or at least ridiculed by Jewish leaders. His gospel focuses on Jesus coming first to reform Judaism (he was, after all, the son of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), but also reaching out to the Gentiles, or non-Jewish people (hence the magi or wise men). In the end, the two gospels point out that the gift of God’s son, Jesus Christ, was intended for all people; that anyone, regardless of upbringing or tradition, can receive salvation through him. In other words, God’s son is as much meant for us as he was for the shepherds and the magi long ago.
So celebrate Epiphany, the time we recognize the arrival of the magi, but more important, celebrate the gift of Jesus Christ coming into your life for your salvation.
[i] United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992) 295
[ii] UMH BOW, 295
[iii] UMH BOW, 295