Thursday, December 3, 2015
Advent Caledar Day 5
"Falling to their knees, the honored him." Worship. These travelers from the east--not Jews--worshipped this child that was foretold by the Jewish prophets. We tend to categorize people into at a minimum of two categories--in or out. But these non-Jewish travelers, who were possibly followers of Zoroaster, traveled a great distance from their homeland to bring baby gifts. Why would they do this? Traveling that far was perilous. Why the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
Much is unknown about these travelers told about only in the Gospel of Matthew. However, there is a great deal of fascination with them and a great deal of speculation which has become accepted as fact, although there is no basis for it. We do not know how many of them there were, though it is presumed there were three because there were three gifts. We do know there was more than one because the word which is translated as magi in Latin (magoi in Greek) is a plural form of the word magus. This is the word we get our modern-day words magic and magician from; although there is nothing that indicates that these travelers were magicians or sorcerers in the modern understanding of the word. They were probably scholars or priests, rather than foreign dignitaries visiting a newborn dignitary. Regardless of our understanding, they were not Jewish leaders who rightly interpreted the signs for the coming of the foretold anointed one of God. They were outsiders.
As for the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, there are two primary understandings of the meaning of the gifts--political or spiritual. Political would indicate that they are presents you would present to a king as an indication of respect and good faith. Spiritual significance would indicate that their worship was one of more than adoration or respect, but acknowledging the presence of the divine.
Gold, a symbol of earthly kingship, seems a fairly practical gift--it was the ancient form of gift cards or just cold, hard, cash. Money, which they did not specify to be put in a trust fund until the child reached some age of maturity. It was for the parents to use to raise the child. The gold likely funded their flight to Egypt where the family (Mary, Joseph, and Jesus) were considered refugees fleeing from political tyranny and death. We would do well to remember that when we consider our modern feelings of political refugees.
Frankincense and myrrh were much more spiritually symbolic. Frankincense carries our prayers to God and is a symbol of divinity. Myrrh was a perfume or spices used in embalming or preparation for burial. Western Christianity has interpreted this to mean that the child born was a king, a god, and a sacrifice (from "We Three Kings",a Christmas carol that was written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857). As we know that Jesus, himself said that his "kingdom" or "realm" was not earthly, then it would be more appropriate to interpret the gifts listed in Matthew with a spiritual understanding rather than an earthly or political one.
While we do not know what happens of the magi, these travelers from the east, following their encounter with the child, there are many legends about them. What we can surmise is that they were observers of another religion, from another culture, that should show us how to worship the Christ. How often do we go out of our way to worship? How often do we bring expensive and significant gifts to God? How often do we worship in the manner becoming a follower of Jesus?
As you continue the advent journey, consider the journey of the travelers from the east. What can you do this season that would be symbolic of the effort and sacrifice of the magi?