How many Magi were there? Look at our Crib in front of the altar and there are 3. Look at some of the Christmas cards you received or sent and you’ll find 3. Go to a Syriac church and there may be as many as 12. The Magi only appear in Matthew’s Gospel and if you look carefully at the text you’ll see that he actually doesn’t tell us how many there are. The traditional 3 is based on the assumption that one person brought each of the three gifts. Look again at those cards or other depictions and you’ll see that they’re all men. But there’s no reason to make that assumption either. All that we’re actually told in the story is that some visitors came from the East bearing gifts.
So let’s think about who they were and why we’re hearing about them at all. This morning’s Gospel gives us the scene where Matthew begins to lay the groundwork for what is to come. The visitors arrive with their symbolic gifts and, in so doing, tell us something about the child in front of them. They tell us who he is and, in the manner of a good whodunnit, lay clues for the reader to unpack.
So when that sign is written over the Cross on Good Friday, there’s an echo of something that we came across right at the beginning of the story.
The Magi represent people who aren’t the primary audience for this Gospel. It’s generally assumed that Matthew was writing for a community of Jewish converts – people who would know the Hebrew Scriptures but who would now count themselves amongst those who followed Jesus Christ and knew him as Messiah. So, for those early readers of Matthew, the Magi are, first and foremost, people who are not like them. People who perhaps looked a bit different; maybe they had different cultural norms; different ways of dressing; different accents or turns of phrase. Right at the start of his Gospel, in the opening chapters, Matthew is forcing his readers to look at the stranger, at the person they may have made all sorts of assumptions about. And he puts that stranger right at the centre of the good news, right at the heart of the revelation that this baby was going to change the face of history, was going to change the story of humankind.
Last week we read Luke’s Gospel and the revelation to the faithful – to Anna and Simeon. Matthew doesn’t tell that story, his revelation is to those who hadn’t spent their lives waiting and praying, to those who were seen as other.
Let’s think a bit about who the Magi might represent for us, who they tell us something about in contemporary society. Think again about those Christmas cards and one of the things you might see is that the Magi aren’t all white skinned. There may well be black and brown faces, faces that don’t look like the Holy Family in most depictions of the nativity and don’t look like the shepherds and angels either. Look at their clothing – no everyday tunics for them but rich colourful robes, jewels and baubles. These are people who’ve journeyed, people who appear to be a bit exotic. They’re different from Matthew’s audience, but they’re also different from one another. If we were writing the story for a 21st century audience, how would we portray them? Would they be intrepid explorers or asylum seekers? Students on a gap year or members of a cult? Scientists or artists? Or all of these?
What they are actually representing for us is diversity. They tell us not just that the Good News is also for the Gentiles, they tell us that the Good News is for all people whatever they look like, however they sound, whatever they wear, whatever their education. The Good News doesn’t discriminate. The visit of the Magi is a clear indication that the Incarnation isn’t just for the existing members of a community, or for those who have dedicated their lives to seeking and waiting. The Incarnation is for all of humanity in all of its shapes and sizes. It’s for the people who look and behave like us – and for those who don’t. Not only is the Incarnation for those who are very different from us they’re not even required to become like us. They are simply required to be themselves.
Within the church, that’s something that can come as a bit of a shock. We understand the concept of being open and welcoming to everyone who comes through our doors, and we try very hard to manage that. We want people to feel comfortable. But whether we want some of those people to stay just the way they are is altogether a different question.
What most of us usually want is to feel comfortable and to feel that we fit in – one of the reasons we find people who are different from us difficult is because we ourselves want to fit in, want to feel that we belong. We make all sorts of judgements on a daily basis to help us achieve that goal. We choose where we shop, where we go on holiday, where we go for a night out (when that’s allowed) according to an internal compass that helps us work out where we will feel most comfortable, where we fit. Effectively, we create a comfort zone for ourselves.
In normal times, Christmas is a comfort zone time of the year. We have our family routines and traditions that help us to celebrate the joy of the Incarnation. This year hasn’t been like that and I wonder how many of us have been able to find that comfort zone, to filter out, even for a few hours, the international crisis that is our context. In the midst of all of that, St Matthew’s Magi have a message that may be more important this year than in previous years. The Magi are a reminder that whoever we are, whatever our situation, our context, our challenges, the Incarnation is for us.
Wherever we’ve come from – either physically or metaphorically – and wherever we’re journeying to, the Christ child is here in our midst and sharing our lives. Whatever our spiritual lives have been like over the past year, whether we’ve worshipped in church or on-line; whether we’ve been faithful in prayer or distracted by anxiety; whether we’ve kept the good intentions that we had when we began the year… all of that is less important than the clear message that God knows us and accepts us just as we are.
That doesn’t mean that we can sit back and do nothing. What the Magi did was they turned up. And what God asks of us is that we turn up. Turn up for the quiet few minutes of prayer; turn up for the worship that is accessed through your computer; turn up for the time you allocated to read or listen to music or meditate or whatever you find most helpful. But do it – make the journey that you need to make. The Incarnate Christ is here for you and for me – for the people like us and the people we struggle to comprehend. Gift or no gift, all are welcome.