Epiphany: Distance

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12.

Here the Magi – the so-called Wise Men – recognise Jesus as the ‘ruler of Israel’. An epiphany, these days, is usually a sudden realisation about something – an extra spark of insight which, following a long period of study, everything makes a new kind of sense. Here the Magi have studied the stars and are ready to recognise the baby in Mary’s arms as the Messiah. The Magi, and to a lesser extent Herod, are the only active characters in this story; Mary and Jesus appear, but really as static figures. The Magi ‘pay homage’ to the child, but this story doesn’t even have them saying hello to his mother (although they do leave rich if somewhat ominous gifts, which as we all know is sometimes what counts at Christmas. 😀 ).

They seem to draw on several range of sources of knowledge, though: they watch the skies and can follow a star (xkcd suggests you don’t try that at home), they ask people for information, and at the end of the story they receive their next instructions in a prophetic dream (apparently popular at the time, as Joseph had one in the last chapter and is about to have another one). The information the Magi gather from the stars is verified for Herod by the scriptures, as the priests and scribes quote Micah for him. One suggestion would be that this is one (although not the only) reason why Matthew/the author of this gospel chooses to include this episode, which does not appear elsewhere – he was writing for an audience already familiar with the scriptures and likes to quote them often as support for the idea that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfils them.

I’m somewhat stuck to say anything about this story, and after considering the possibility that it’s just that I’m uninspired this week, I think my problem is really that there’s nothing I relate to in this episode. I’ve never followed a star and if I did I wouldn’t expect to find a baby at the end; I don’t even read my horoscope, finding the things they say so generic as to be useless. I’ve sometimes travelled to find something special – but I’ve always set the agenda for such journeys. I’ve never sought a Messiah (put your joke about very naughty boys on a postcard, please). I’ve never had a dream which told me where to go. In this story, Matthew takes all of these things for granted, and indeed they seem to be common in the world-view of the book and presumably of the people for whom this book was originally written. Here, as at some other places in the Bible, I can only conclude that they thought about things very differently in those days.

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