Wise men, the star & their gifts

IMG_9462The story of the magi is evocative and full of resonance. Their incredible journey following a star, their getting the address wrong then eventually finding the child and opening their treasure chests to offer their exotic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh excites the imagination. There is no way of knowing how much of it actually happened, and how much is Matthew (2:1-12) providing an imaginative tale to bring wisdom and the quest for understanding to worship at the new born King’s cradle; the one who fulfills all quests, hopes and concerns. The Gospel writers use metaphor so much that it is not always clear when they are reporting real events and when they are using story as a vehicle for a profound reflection. I tend to think the latter with the magi, more metaphor than real event.

That said, over the Christmas break, BBC2’s ‘The Sky at Night’ had a very interesting programme in which they went in search of the Star of Bethlehem, followed by the magi. They presented a number of possibilities from planets in alignment, the rising of a star and a meteorite to novas, supernovas and comets. Some of these are referenced in records from the time – around 5-7 BC, in Babylon (modern day Iraq) and China. They came down in favour of a comet (click here to see it on iPlayer). This kind of evidence makes me wonder if the star in the gospel is itself an echo of these events; that around his birth there was a cosmological event, the purpose of which, well we can only guess at. His birth, if announced, did not bring in the dramatic intervention that many would want to have seen – the flexing of might, conquest or liberation from occupying forces and an impressive display of power. Instead we remember Jesus with titles like ‘the servant king’, he is a leader who serves, one who suffers and dies; the mighty display comes through resurrection and inspiration, which is a very different show of strength. More of this over the coming weeks, though the magi’s gifts point to the story that will follow; they are a good introduction.

The star then may reflect something that was known about by the wise and those who read the night sky for signs and portents. Matthew may have decided to put this into his gospel to embellish it and help make his point. After all, Matthew raids the Old Testament for texts that echo the story he tells and quotes them, not least ones which don’t always fit: ‘the virgin shall conceive and bear a son’ (Matthew 1:23) being a notable one, a statement fulfilled in its own time with liberation from the impending attack from the Assyrian army in the 8th century BC (Isaiah 7:14). But stars are evocative. They capture the imagination and delight us, especially if you live outside of a major town or conurbation, where the night sky is not too obscured by streetlights and other light pollution.

All of us need something to inspire us and draw us on. We need our stars to follow, to be enticed by. They entice us because they connect with a deep longing inside us that is calling out for hope, for salvation from all that oppresses; the quest for answers to those existential questions such as what’s the point, is there a purpose and when we die what then? There are lots of stars shining in the sky. Not all of them lead anywhere and some can lead to disturbing places. We live in times when religious convictions are seen to bless and curse. Some bring death and destruction and some bring hope and healing. The light shining from the star is judged by where it leads and it is here that the magi’s gifts become important and interesting.

Gold is money, power, choices, our ability to make things happen. Gold is a shiny metal, inert and with many uses. Its trading quality enables purchasing power and with it the course of events can be shaped and directed. When we place gold before the infant King, we make a very clear statement that it is God’s Kingdom, revealed through Jesus Christ, that is to direct how we exercise our choices and power.   To understand that we need to read and reflect deeply on the gospels, on the other writings and how these hold together with the central theme of the Bible, which I am convinced is the rainbow – gift, blessing and love.

Frankincense is the smell of worship. It is a sign of honour so we cense the holy table just before we use it to celebrate the great meal in which we remember Jesus; we cense the gospel book to show that in this are the words that are our life, our hope and our salvation; we cense one another to remind ourselves that we find the image of God not just in the crib but in one another, the stranger, in ourselves. We worship and adore God in Christ and in so doing remember that God so loved the world that he came among us in Christ and calls on us to live as though we meet him in one another. Frankincense is more than a bit of aromatherapy; it is a statement of who matters and why they matter.

Myrrh is an incredible healing compound – for those of us over a certain age, it is Lily the Pink’s medicinal compound, for it heals so many things. Soldiers at the time of Jesus carried a small file into battle for pain relief and healing, just like soldiers today carry morphine. Myrrh brings our pains, life’s raw moments, the knocks and grit of life, and these are placed before this child. This child is relevant to how life really is. We don’t have to pretend we are something we are not; in fact he demands that we are honest. A sign of an authentic community is one where people can be real with one another, admit our weaknesses and that we all stand before this crib in need of God’s healing grace. All of us will find that healing, beit through honouring who we are, laying troubles to rest or the hope of salvation in God’s grace.

So following the star, whatever its provenance in a real event, is a metaphor for all our hopes and dreams, our quest for meaning and understanding, finding there fulfillment in this child and his story. The gifts show just what this star points to and therefore that in him we find true blessing not just for ourselves but for everyone else. That is this star’s test and its certificate of authentication. Where it leads shows that it is worth following.


Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Epiphany Sunday, 3rd January 2016

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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