Welcome to Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus. For over thirty days we have been reflecting on the mysteries of Advent and Christmas, Jesus amongst us.
So, how was your Christmas? Over the last few months it was increasingly clear that Christmas 2020 would be different and we’d all have to make decisions, follow guidelines and manage our expectations for the festive period. I think the clergy and leadership teams at St. Mary’s have done their best to provide an Advent and Christmas experience accessible regardless of whether you’re in church, at home or self-isolating.
In today’s Maranatha!, we see the three Kings, or Wise Men, finally reach the stable where Jesus is laying in the manger. I have asked Tony Groves to read for us.
Did you notice anything about that reading? It starts off – “and going into the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother”. I’m standing here by the outdoor crib and you can see how we depict the nativity – Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, looking a bit cold if I’m honest, the Wise Men and the Shepherds. This scene is so familiar and, I imagine most of us recognise it as a romantic interpretation of what happened – the influence of St. Francis of Assisi. As you’d expect, things didn’t necessarily happen in that way. Indeed it’s more likely that it was months or even two years after Jesus’s birth before the maji bowed down before him.
The Kings, or Wise Men, are possibly the most romantic characters in the incarnation story. We only hear about them through Matthew’s Gospel and know very little about them. Were they really Kings? Were they astronomers or thinkers? Where were they from?
And with those questions you can spend a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon reading all about how different Catholic and Orthodox traditions view them, their kingdoms on India, Saudi Arabia and Iran; how Gaspar in India later met with St. Thomas when the disciples were sent out to proclaim the good news. As I say, a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting afternoon of reading resulting in even greater romance for these characters but no real clarity.
I think the more interesting question is why Matthew records this in in Gospel. To understand that we need to remember who the Gospel was written for. Matthew was writing for a fledling Jewish Christian community – a community where that Jewish heritage was important and a lived experience but with growing recognition that Jesus is the Messiah and a fundamental change in our relationship with God has taken place.
The story of the Kings is Matthew providing even more evidence that the birth of Christ was foretold in the prophets of old: Isaiah 60:1–6, which refers to “kings coming to the brightness of your dawn” bearing “gold and frankincense”.And Psalm 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him”.
The story also hints at what is to come. Those gifts – Gold for a King, Frankincense for a Priest, Myrhh for death to come.
As the story unfolds we see that it leads to the massacre of the Innocents – something history tells us was very much in the paranoid personality of King Herod. Herod famously ordered innocent members of every family to be killed so that the whole country would share in mourning when he died. We may have questions about political leadership today and that certainly puts things into context.
But for me the story of the Kings goes beyond that. It is the story of how the first Gentiles came to know and worship God through Jesus. Remember, even Matthew is writing for an existing Jewish community – evangelism, spreading the word, was not fundamental to their faith – and yet from his very birth we see non-Jews, Gentiles, outsiders, the forgotten, the powerful and mighty all responding and bowing before him.
Christ draws everyone in, he is there for everyone. He’s not confined to a stable, or a pretty Surrey medieval church, he is the light that shines in the darkness for everyone.
Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!