So who invited them?! The Wisemen, the Three Kings, the Magi are such a permanent fixture in the Christmas scene that their presence doesn’t seem to trigger much thought. It should!
Who invited them? They’re foreigners…not Jews! And they’re bringing gifts. Beware Gentiles bearing gifts! The Magi are, unwittingly, Bethlehem’s Trojan Horse. Oh yeah, they’re exotic. And those gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But…once they’ve made their visit, in come Herod’s soldiers and Bethlehem’s baby boys, 3 years old and younger, are put to the sword. If the Magi had not come, neither would Herod’s soldiers have come.
So who invited them?! God did. He sent a star-studded invitation. Centuries before He had hauled His people out of the Promised Land into Babylonian captivity. Their scrolls went with them (if they weren’t burned in the destruction of Jerusalem). Now centuries later, Israel has been back home for a long time, but some of the ancient scrolls likely remained in Babylon where they were studied by scholars…the Magi.
So some Magi have heard God’s Word in the Law and the Prophets. They have seen the star in their study of the constellations. They come to Judea, to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem, looking for a King. Gentiles come to Israel’s Messiah. And because they come, death follows. Now that’s a strange assortment of gifts at Epiphany: Jews and Gentiles; gold, frankincense, and myrrh; a King…and death.
Yes, right from the beginning, we see the end. The cross is present from the beginning. The cross, which means on the one hand, the shedding of blood, the suffering, the death. The cross, which means on the other hand, the place from which Jesus promised, “I will draw all men to Myself.” All people—Jew and Gentile, shepherds and Magi, us and them. And this suffering-death-drawing-all-to-Himself cross is present from the beginning of Jesus’ earthly calling as Messiah, as King.
But…we’re not entirely comfortable with that. We prefer our Jesus holidays neat…nice and tidy. Christmas here. Easter there. But…as the Bible reminds us…God’s ways (to our way of thinking) are anything but neat and tidy. In fact, God’s ways seem to lead to a big mess before everything comes clean.
Take the ethnic issue at the heart of Epiphany. Epiphany is an intensely racial holiday because it marks the first of the Gentiles, non-Jews, to come to the side of this King of the Jews. And the presence of Gentiles with Jesus is going to be messy for some years to come! He will associate with Samaritans, even making a Samaritan the hero of one of His parables. “Them.” He talks with Greeks about His kingdom. “Them.” He praises a Roman centurion’s faith. “Them.” He heals a Canaanite woman’s daughter. “Them.” He exorcizes a legion of demons from a Syrian. “Them.” Not to mention the whole crowd of the outcasts, the sick, the lame, the criminal, the traitor. Jesus has all of them around Him. “Them!”
And the cross is there in each case. Today, it’s these foreigners who are drawn to Jesus, the King of the Jews, the soon to be crucified Messiah. It’s not for nothing that in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the title, “King of Jews”, here at Epiphany comes back big time at the crucifixion. It’s not for nothing, that in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the making of disciples is by baptizing all nations, burying them with Christ and raising them up again. Where Jesus is there is the cross. Jesus will be criticized, ostracized, deemed a fanatic, a madman, a threat to the peace of Jerusalem.
Now today, over two thousand years of “thems” have been drawn to Jesus in wide variety and number—Asians, Africans, Europeans, Americans, “thems” all. Drawn to Christ as He said, as the Magi were first drawn to Him. But…history is littered with the violence, the suffering, the death—the cross—that has accompanied “them” coming to Christ.
So the trendy develop racial quotas for the Church to erase the suffering, and to draw a balanced humanity to Christ. But this misses the point entirely, and only emphasizes the differences. The drawing to Christ is going to be painful…in a world such as ours. That’s the way it is. The cross will always be present wherever Christ is present. Only a fool would attempt to remove what God has woven into His plans.
It is foolish to try and remove Good Friday from Christmas…to do so destroys Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. It is foolish to separate the Magi visit from Herod’s slaughter. It destroys Epiphany. It is foolish to separate Jesus’ death on the cross from His drawing all people to Himself…it destroys Christianity!
But…but…this chafes with our sensibilities…especially when we have to deal with “them.” Oh indeed it does! Whether it’s Jews and Gentiles, Caucasians and people of color, men and women/women and men, Us folks of our own socio-economic status and them who are not, us on our side of the issues, the debates, the wars, and them on that other side. It is rarely comfortable dealing with “them.” That’s why we call ‘em “them.”
Yes, we create laws to establish order against violence, to protect rights regardless of race or creed…but the mere presence of these laws only underscores the tensions with “them.”
So across this tense landscape falls the shadow of the cross. Jesus did not grow up and go to that cross because it was trendy or convenient or to ease our own discomforts. He went to that cross to draw all people to Himself; to draw the “Us” of the Holy Trinity and all the created “thems” (we “thems”) together in Himself by His cross. And this has been accomplished, not despite the suffering of that cross but precisely because of the suffering associated with that cross.
This is the mystery of Epiphany…the strange yet wonderful mystery. Not by law, not by quota, not by trying harder to get along but by the cross are all people drawn together around Jesus.
So the Bethlehem King ascends His throne, the cross. He puts on His crown, those thorns. The royal proclamation is raised over His head: “The King of the Jews.” And as He said, from that cross He draws all people to Himself. To His crucified self, where all people, all us’s and all thems, likewise die to self and live to Him who died for all and was raised up again.
For in Him we are all crucified, confessing our isolating, separating ways, being raised up to wholeness in Christ’s absolution, from the water of Holy Baptism. For in Christ there is neither us nor them, but one Lord, one Faith, on Baptism, one God and Father of us all.
Now…that’s not entirely comfortable…but it is certainly comforting. It is not comfortable knowing that laws and trying harder will not unite the disparate human race. It is what we suffer together with Christ, what we endure together in Christ, makes us one…even to the dying together that is Jesus Christ. But though we die…though we suffer and endure…yet shall we live…now and forever. The end from the beginning. This too is Christ. This is His Epiphany Gift to us…this fearful, yet most wonderful Gift of the season.