Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Happy Epiphany: The Wise Men and Their Gifts

At our home, we keep Christmas decorations out until January 6th, which is when Epiphany usually falls. Epiphany is a Christian holiday that is emphasized more in Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches, but I think it has value for all Christians.  The Greek term epiphaneia means "to manifest or reveal."  On Epiphany, Christians remember how Jesus Christ's deity was manifested.  As such, churches may discuss Jesus' baptism, where his deity was declared or miracles that revealed his deity.  Celebrated twelve days after Christmas, some churches commemorate the visit of the Wise Men and recognize Jesus' arrival for all nations.

This year I am including my daughter in the event and for that reason I am focusing on the concrete wise men story from the Bible. (To see exactly what I am going to do, check out this post on my other blog). I did a little research on the wise men and their gifts so I could talk to my daughter about them. I wanted to answer the question, "So, why is the story of the wise men significant?"

The Bible doesn't directly tell us why the wise men matter. But I think there are definitely hints concerning the reason these men showed up. First, the wise men were "from the East." This means they probably came from Persia. This explains why they might be interested in a prophecy from the Hebrew Bible. Approximately 500 years before Jesus' birth, Daniel had served in the Persian court as a high official. Daniel had prophesied the coming of an anointed ruler in Israel. For whatever reason, these wise men connected the Hebrew prophecy with a stellar event, a bright star appearing in the sky. They left their home and traveled around 800 miles to find this ruler that would be born. To me it is significant that not only Jews sought Christ. The wise men were Gentiles. For this reason, Epiphany has celebrated the fact that Jesus came for all peoples, not just the Israelite nation. In the movie The Nativity Story, Mary says "He is for all men." It's a good statement in the movie because I believe it is pointing to the truth that Jesus is the Savior of all.

Are the gifts the wise men bring significant? Well, just like the wise men themselves, the Bible doesn't directly assign any meaning to the gifts. Over the years, various people have suggested various symbolic meanings. I think at the least we can talk about how these gifts were used in the time of Christ. Gold, of course, was valuable, and used to decorate the homes and palaces of the rich as well as temples for the gods. If the wise men were seeking a king, it makes sense they would bring gold. Practically, this gift of gold would be useful to Mary and Joseph when they fled to Egypt. To me, the wise men's gift of gold is acknowledgement that they are coming to find someone valuable who deserves a costly gift appropriate to his station. Ironic considering he appears to be born of poor parentage and is placed in a manger.

Frankincense is a resin that is fragrant when burned. Exodus mentions frankincense being burned to God. Did the wise men know about this? Possibly if they had more than Daniel's prophecy to study. If so, maybe they understood that bringing this gift would point to the deity or divine involvement in the birth of this child. Or perhaps they thought this aromatic gift also appropriate for a king. Whatever their reason, Jesus is presented with frankincense just as God is in the tabernacle and temple. He is not just a child, but God in a man.

Myrrh is also a resin and aromatic. It was used in purification rituals, in embalming and also added to medicinal drinks. It is listed as an ingredient in Exodus as well as part of the anointing oil used to purify the tabernacle, to make it holy. This then could point to Jesus again as divine and perhaps as one who purifies. But myrrh makes another appearance in Jesus' life. Mark 15:23 mentions that the drink Jesus is given at his crucifixion is wine mixed with myrrh. He refuses to drink it, however, not allowing a lessening of pain on the cross. Combine this with the fact that myrrh may have been used in his embalming after he had died and myrrh seems to point to the fact that Jesus came to die.

It is not clear if the wise men meant their gifts to symbolize anything more than appropriate gifts for a king, gold and anointing incense. However, whether they meant to or not, we living in the future can look back to the past and see that the way these gifts were used holds significance for us who understand the impact and purpose of Jesus' life on earth. Taken together, the gifts of the wise men make a statement that is the crux of the celebration of Epiphany: Jesus is a ruler, a prince of heaven, God himself in a man, who came to sacrifice his life for all men. This is a truth and joy to celebrate!