Epiphany and Magi; gifts old and new


Scripture, Matthew 2: 1-12 Epiphany Nigel Bunce


Today, the Epiphany of our Lord, we celebrate gifts old and new.  At Epiphany, the Magi brought gifts to the infant Jesus. Today’s homily explores the meaning of gifts in the Bible story and in today’s lives.

For me personally, today is a special anniversary.  A gift.  Because, Bishop Ralph Spence ordained me as a priest at Epiphany 2005. It was a wonderful celebration.

Timing of Epiphany

However, in 2022, the timing of Epiphany is awkward. It’s the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th. But, there’s no sound of “12 drummers drumming”. Because, the secular world moves on at 12:01 am on December 26th.

For small parishes like St. George’s, Epiphany presents a problem. We don’t have midweek services. However, the Sunday immediately after the Epiphany is the Baptism of Our Lord. So, we usually have Epiphany early (really early this year). Otherwise, we would miss out on the story of the Magi visiting the infant Jesus.

Who were the Magi?

We call them Wise Men, or Magi, or astrologers, or Three Kings.  We can note that Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t say how many wise men visited. Or, that they came on camels. Only that they brought three gifts!

Those gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You probably remember the old story. If they’d been female Magi, they would have brought casseroles, blanket sleepers, and diapers. Yes, I nearly fell out of my crib laughing the first time I heard the joke.

Matthew wanted us to know that people beyond Judaism knew about Jesus’ birth. The Magi followed a mysterious, even magical, star that appeared in the night sky. They recognized that the star foretold a special event. So they followed the star from their country to Bethlehem.

The Magi visit King Herod

The Magi stopped off at King Herod’s on the way. They must have been important for Herod to receive them. But there’s a dark side to the story. Herod said that he’d like to come and worship the baby too.

However, the Magi didn’t trust him. Fat chance a ruler like Herod would be worshipping another king. So the Magi returned home without telling Herod where they’d been.

Light and joy

Our reading from Isaiah began, “Arise, shine, your light has come” [Isaiah 60: 1-3]. It remembers when the Israelites returned home from exile in Babylon. They came from the east, like the Magi. Also, the Israelites were joyful, Their Light was deliverance from slavery.

The Magi were “overwhelmed with joy” when they saw the Christ-child. Because, as we read in John’s Gospel at Christmas. Jesus was “the Light that has come into the world.” This connects our Isaiah reading to Epiphany. Because, the word Epiphany means “to make known the divine”. The Magi were the first foreigners to recognize Jesus’ divinity.

Gifts and the Magi

It’s rather ironical that we give and receive gifts on Christmas Day. Because, the shepherds in Luke’s Christmas story didn’t bring gifts. Gift-giving happened at Epiphany, when the Magi came.

We use the word “gifts” in two ways. Gifts give us pleasure we give them to friends or loved ones. Or when we receive them. But “gifts” also refer to our innate abilities. The gifts we have received from God. St Paul wrote, “There are many gifts, but they are all activated by the same Holy Spirit.” [1 Corinthians 12] God has given us gifts, yet in a real sense we give them back to God by the way in which we use them.

That makes me wonder how our gifts, like those the Magi brought, fit into our lives. The last verse of the hymn, In the bleak midwinter, runs thus. “What shall I give him, poor as I am. If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would play my part. But what I have, I give him: give my heart.

Gifts of the Magi

Just before Christmas, I listened once again to Alan Maitland reading the story, The Visit of the Magi on the CBC radio program As it happens. It’s about a young couple who had no money to buy each other Christmas presents. Their most treasured possessions were Jim’s gold watch, and Della’s long brown tresses.

Jim yearned to buy Della a set of tortoiseshell combs for her beautiful hair. And, Della longed to buy Jim a strap for his cherished watch. In the story, Jim sells his watch to buy Della the tortoiseshell combs, and Della sells her long tresses to buy Jim the gold strap for his watch.

Therefore, when they exchanged the gifts on Christmas morning, Jim had no watch to hang on the strap, and Della had no long hair through which to run the combs.

The ending of O. Henry’s story

Let me read to you from the last paragraph of O. Henry’s story: “The Magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones.

“And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children who most unwisely sacrificed for each other their greatest treasures. But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. They are the magi.”

How to be modern day Magi

St. George’s is a tiny parish. But it is still our responsibility to use our gifts wisely. To follow through on Jesus’ command to us to help the less fortunate. To be Magi to the infant Jesus by helping those in need. What can I give him, poor as I am? we ask.

Therefore, I hope that when Epiphany rolls around next year, we’ll be able to give this answer. That we, the people of St. George’s, are Magi. We used God’s gifts to us to help less privileged in today’s society today. Like the Christ-child and his parents. They needed, and need, our gifts. Amen.