A couple of days ago, Christians celebrated the visit of the wise men to baby Jesus. You may have noted the date by taking down your Christmas decorations—or by deciding to leave them up until spring. In some countries the wise men are also called kings, and they bring gifts to children, and that also happened on Friday.
Who were these “wise men from the East?” Matthew doesn’t tell us specifically where they came from, and he doesn’t really seem to care. They probably lived in the region we know as Iran, and were likely priests of the religion of Zoroastrianism, who were called Magi, or wise men. They were the scientists of their day—astrologers and alchemists. They could read and speak several languages, and had read the holy scriptures of other religions.
Matthew is the only Gospel writer who mentions this visit, and here’s why he did so. He was writing anywhere from 70 to 100 years after the events in this story, in a time of catastrophic change for the people of Israel. The Roman Empire had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, burned the city to the ground, and murdered thousands of Jews. For the next nineteen centuries, Israel did not exist, and its people were scattered across the Empire and eventually all over the world. And as the Christian version of Judaism spread among non-Jews throughout the Empire, it was becoming less and less Jewish. Apostles like Paul were advocating equality for Gentile Christians—you didn’t have to be a descendant of Abraham, or obey the 600 or so laws of Judaism, to follow Jesus. Matthew, on the other hand, was trying to maintain Jewish traditions within Christianity.
He was also trying to convince Jews that Jesus really was the Messiah the prophets had foretold, who would restore both the Temple and the glory of Israel. The function of the wise men from the East is to be foreigners—Gentiles—who have traveled a long way to fulfill a Jewish prophecy. Isaiah says in Chapter 60: “And the Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Enter the wise men, stage east.
Did that visit really happen? We have no way of knowing. But we can look at what Matthew defines as wisdom. His Magi were learned enough to spot the anomaly in the sky and to discern what it meant. A new king was born--and he wasn’t just the puppet king of a tiny, colonized ethnic group. This little boy was going to change the world, and as Isaiah had said, all nations would come to acknowledge his rising. These scholars recognized the importance of the sign, and they set out across a desert for 1000 miles without even knowing exactly where they were going. They took it on faith that they would find a miracle.
Was this really a “wise” thing to do?
For Matthew, the answer was clearly Yes, this is wisdom. His definition of wisdom didn’t mean just the knowledge these men had gained through their studies. It meant acknowledging the supreme, universal reign of the God of Israel. The book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible says: “The fear—or awe—of God is the beginning of wisdom.”
Matthew’s wise men made their long journey as symbols of faith in Israel’s God and the kingship of Jesus, and they brought gifts that would represent the roles Jesus would take in the restored kingdom. Gold was for a king. Frankincense was for Jesus as the high priest in the restored Temple, an intermediary between God and God’s people. Myrrh represented the sacrifice Jesus had already made, to reconcile God with God’s people and to seal God’s new covenant with Israel.
So Matthew’s story is meant to give hope to the refugees and exiles of Israel, and to also remind other Christians that Jesus was, after all, born a Jew, and came to fulfill Jewish prophecies.
But when we look at this story from 2000 years away, the Magi look a bit less than wise, and more like the punch line in a Far Side cartoon. If they knew so much about the world around them, if they were paying attention…Why would they stop to ask an evil king for directions to the birthplace of his successor? Did they know that their question was directly responsible for the mass slaughter of small children?
And just on the practical side. That parade of camels, mules, servants, and luggage coming through the narrow streets of Bethlehem. How much attention did that attract? Christian art shows the three Magi—and maybe a servant or two—at the door of the house. But you know it wouldn’t be like that. It would have been the entire town, all crowding in, stepping on each others’ toes, craning their necks, talking and pointing and speculating about just who this baby really was.
And I’ve been thinking about what this poor couple was going to do with those gifts. Imagine Joseph carefully taking one small piece out of the gold stash and going to the market for some food. “Uh, do you take gold?” How long before he’d be asked to the police station to answer a few questions? And where do you keep frankincense and myrrh in a small house full of growing and curious children, and nosy neighbors?
It’s possible that Mary and Joseph used the gold for their escape to Egypt, and maybe they later sold the frankincense and myrrh to finance their trip home.
So—in relation to the future of Israel, and of Jesus himself, those gifts may have been useful. But in the immediate moment, where a small, poor family was trying not to attract the attention of the authorities—not really a great idea.
The wise men disappear from the story, and are not heard from again. Their work here is done—or rather, the work Matthew had in mind for them.
Meanwhile, back at the stable, the wise women are showing up, according to Jan Richardson, bringing gifts of warmth and light and water and blankets and help with the birth. There was no star to guide them. Their wisdom was what we also call common sense. I imagine the innkeeper’s wife, hearing Mary’s cries and groans, rushing around the house, gathering up what was needed, scolding her husband for putting that poor girl in the stable!
Of course she came to help. How could she not? And so did the neighbor women. And they all stayed afterward, to help clean up, make sure Mary and the baby were OK, get Mary to eat something.
They knew what was needed, and they brought it and they did it.
Over fifty years ago, wise women in this church looked at the wider Capitol Hill neighborhood, and noticed that there was no preschool for low-income kids. And so they made that happen, and the kids came, and for half a century, Prospect nurtured the preschool. But the neighborhood began to change. It became more difficult for families to keep the homes where they’d grown up. They moved to the more affordable suburbs, commuted to work in the city, and needed schools that would care for their kids all day, rather than the half-day the preschool could offer. Our enrollment declined.
And then came COVID, and the impossible task of keeping a group of small children masked and sanitized and safe. We realized we didn’t have the staff for that monumental job. And so, reluctantly and sadly, we ended our relationship with Prospect Enrichment Preschool.
And now we are still in the process of finding a focus for our work in the world, the city, the neighborhood. We are giving the gifts of the wise women—for an immigrant family, tutoring, home furnishings, help with rides and filing out forms. For hungry, unhoused people, a hot lunch. For people concerned about climate change, education and practical actions like our cisterns, which collect the runoff from our roof to help protect salmon runs.
But we are still looking for our larger mission in our neighborhood and city. Churches have traditionally offered the gifts of the Magi. Gold appears as the inspiring beauty of buildings, candles, stained glass windows, and glorious music. It also shows up as charity. Frankincense manifests as our worship services and other rituals, as prayers and teachings about our relationship with God. Myrrh is the spiritual comfort we offer during grief and other hard times. These gifts are important, and we are wise to continue to offer them.
But another kind of wisdom asks questions before bringing gifts—questions like
What’s missing that we could help provide?
What problems can we help you solve?
We see you working on this problem. What kind of help would you like from us?
And now that we are trying to discern how to use that wonderful legacy from our late member and friend Bob Bakke, we are asking those questions, and listening to the answers. Recently Meighan talked with the principal of Stevens Elementary School, just up the street, to ask how we can help with the problem of hungry children at the school, and if there are other ways we can work with the school. Meighan has also begun the Macrina Ministry. She posts a “The Pastor Is In” sign at the café on Aloha Street, and then she listens to whatever visitors want to talk about.
So as we pray and think and discuss what our work as a church can be—even as we are doing it--we can bring the resources of the wise men, who knew that their rich gifts could actually be useful as well as symbolic, and who centered their giving on a God of love and renewal. And we bring the thoughtfulness of the wise women, who saw the chores that needed doing to help Mary give birth, to make the new baby and mother comfortable, to help the family keep a low profile.
This is about all our gifts—about how our time and talents and treasure can truly help with what people are already struggling with, whether that is feeding bodies or nurturing souls. As we discern how to use these gifts, may we find both the wise faith and inspiration of the Magi, and the practical common sense and compassion of the innkeeper’s wife.
“Wise Women Came” (by Jan Richardson, in Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas. Janrichardson.com. Used by permission.)