As a kid, the Wise Men always fascinated me. Of all the figurines in the nativity set, they were the most different. Their wore the fanciest clothes, carried ornate boxes, and obviously brought the camel with them. There is no doubt that these guys are outsiders, different from everyone else in the scene. Little did I know how unexpected and surprising their visit must have been.
One of these things is not like the others. Do the Wise Men belong here?
<A quick aside> I’ve heard a lot in recent years about how including the Wise Men in our nativities is historically inaccurate. The Bible doesn’t put the shepherds and Wise Men at the manger together, and since Herod later orders the death of every child two-years-old and younger, there is a theory that Jesus was around two when he met the Magi. Remember, our nativity sets are more symbolic than historic.<end aside>
Matthew, the only gospel writer that tells the story of the Magi (same root as the word magician), gives us clues about these guys (Matthew 2:1-12). They were astronomers from a far away land who followed a star to the nativity where they offer expensive gifts. Unlike everyone else in the scene, these guys are clearly neither poor nor Jewish. Different.
The Gospel of Matthew is considered by most scholars to have been intended for a Jewish audience. Yet, the faith of these non-Jewish “scholars” who follow a star to come to Jesus, is told in a way the reader is intended to admire.
They set out from their homeland having no idea where the star is leading or how long it will take to get there. When they get lost on the way, they don’t give up on their journey. Instead, they stop in Jerusalem for directions. Herod’s experts in the Jewish scriptures help them find their way to Bethlehem. We get the impression that we are to follow their lead and make our own journey to Jesus.
Later, the Wise Men have a heroic role in the story. When warned in a dream not to tell Herod where Jesus is, they end up saving his life.
If there’s one thing we know about the Magi, it’s the gifts. They brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are not practical gifts for a newborn, as jokes through the years have made clear. So why these three things?
Scholars have theorized about the significance of these gifts, a discussion into which I am unqualified to enter. I dare, however, to offer an explanation that speaks to me.
All three of the Magi’s gifts are mentioned in a single chapter of our Old Testament. Exodus 30 contains God’s instructions for setting up the Tent of Meeting, the place of worship of the early Israelites soon after being freed from slavery in Egypt.
Gold is an integral part of the building of the Altar of Incense (vs 1-10). Frankincense is a special ingredient in the recipe for a holy incense only to be burned on this altar (vs 34-38). Myrrh is the primary ingredient in the anointing oil used to consecrate the priests, the Tent of Meeting, and all of the pieces used in it, including the Altar of Incense.
The Altar of Incense was placed in front of a curtain that separated the Ark of the Covenant—the throne of God that contained the tablets of the 10 Commandments—from the rest of the Tent of Meeting. This special section of this worship tent, which would become the Holy of Holies in the Temple, was only to be entered by one priest, once a year, to offer atonement for the people’s sins.
These Interestingly, Matthew tells us at Jesus’ death that the curtain in the Temple—the one right behind the Altar of Incense—was torn from top to bottom.
The way to God
Matthew appears to be signaling to his Jewish audience that Jesus is the entryway to God, and these astronomers / scholars / magi / wise men, have brought the key ingredients necessary to build and consecrate the altar placed at the doorway to God.
Jesus has come, not only for Matthew’s Jewish audience, but for the whole world including people like the Wise Men who were so different from them. They do not share a country, a socio-economic status, or even a religion. Yet Jesus is also their gateway to the God of all people.
Maybe you can relate to the Wise Men. Perhaps you don’t feel like you fit in the church or the rest of the Christian landscape around you. Maybe you have doubts about some tenets of the faith and questions about others. Maybe you feel like you don’t belong.
The Wise Men are here to tell us that Christmas is for you. Jesus has a role for people like you and me. We too are welcome make the journey to Jesus.
Note: Christmas is for you is a series of edited versions of a much larger piece intended to help us understand that Jesus came for people who have flawed, messy, imperfect lives just like you and me.