It seemed to be a parade just like any other during the holiday season. Only it wasn’t. The energy and the excitement built as each float and each person dressed up as a character made his or her way down the street. The music got louder. The streets were crowded with more and more people. Children who were running about started jumping up and down, up and down. Even the adults, who were largely watching the events unfold with a humorous disinterest, began to pay attention. For the featured guests, the ones upon which they all awaited, were soon to arrive around the street corner and make their way into the town square.
Finally, they appeared. Was it Santa and Mrs. Claus? No. It was the magi, three men dressed in bright, lavish outfits threatening to outdo one another. The children screamed upon their entrance and surged towards them like they were celebrities. Which in this town, they were. These magi had a hug and a little gift for each child, along with a smile and warm greeting for each adult. They posed for pictures among the admiring throng. The joy and excitement surrounding their presence was palpable. It was unlike any parade experience I had witnessed before.
In the midst of it all, I had to shake my head and check my reality. I was not at an amusement park. I was not at a political rally. I was not even in the mainland United States. I was in Puerto Rico, attending a festival of the three kings in the small town of Juana Diaz. It was Epiphany, January 6, 1999, and I was there on a Bethany seminary intercultural trip.
It was a remarkable scene, one of those cultural experiences that stuck with me, that was transcendent, that meant a little bit more than all of the other wonderful parts of that trip. I must have looked a little goofy, having this blessed moment of self-realization. I was standing there, with an expression of wonderment, with a big, incredulous, bewildering, yet dumbstruck smile on my face. It was very hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere of it all. I was filled with awe.
In the midst of soaking in the scene I was witnessing, the look on my face attracted the attention of one of the men portraying a magi. He came over to me and greeted me with a big hug. He did not say a word to me, which was just as well, since as I have mentioned before, the only Spanish I can speak to this day is the Sesame Street variety. Our exchange was brief, but I remember his face and his eyes. The man was having the time of his life. I could tell that he loved being there, being a magi, being the one to spread excitement to the children of his community, being connected to the story of Jesus. It meant so much to him that I knew I wasn’t the only one filled with awe and joy.
There is much that we don’t know about the magi from Matthew’s birth story. We don’t know how many magi there were. We only know the number of gifts. We don’t know where exactly they came from. We only know they came from the East. We don’t know their names. We only know that the names of Melchoir, Caspar, and Balthasar appeared much later, in an Italian mosaic nearly 500 years after Jesus’ birth and made more popular by Gian Carlo Melotti operetta. We don’t know how they put together the prophecy of Jesus’ birth from afar, while so many people living nearby missed it entirely. We only know what the scripture tells us; that these travelers came to Herod, that he sent them forth as unwitting spies, that they brought their symbolic, mystical, and highly precious gifts to a young boy that they named the Jewish leader.
And even though we know more about the specific gifts they brought than anything, those also hold mystery and intrigue. Clearly, the magi did not expect to deliver such grandiose items to a child in such humble surroundings. The gifts are believed to symbolically reflect the three main leadership traditions in Judaism – gold for kingly tradition, frankincense for the prophetic tradition, and myrrh for the priestly tradition. But that understanding emerged later on, as a means of connecting Jesus more deeply to the history of the Hebrew people.
Because of our relative lack of familiarity with frankincense and myrrh, we Jesus followers of today who encounter this story may believe gold to be the most treasured among these gifts. But Mary and Joseph would likely have seen it differently. Myrrh was a staple of the temple, used by the priests for anointing and sacred functions in worship. It would have held little practical use for the family, but would have held great value as a trading commodity once they returned to Nazareth.
Frankincense, by contrast, has come back into prominent use by practitioners inside and outside of the medical profession for its healing properties. Among the essential oils that my spouse Kimberly purchases, frankincense is among the most expensive and valuable. Frankincense is a resin that has been used in healing practices for thousands of years across multiple cultures. There’s still much to be learned about why frankincense aids with the healing process, but for Mary and Joseph, preparing for a long journey home with a young one, it would have been a godsend. Even if they didn’t know why it worked or why these magi came, Mary and Joseph would have been overwhelmed at their presence and gifts.
Indeed, there is so much that we don’t know about these Magi and this story. We only know one thing for certain. It was the same thing the magi who caught my eye in Puerto Rico knew. Awe; an indescribable, unshakable, overwhelming awe. They were filled with it. The text in Matthew tells us that the magi saw where the star had stopped, the star they had followed for hundreds of miles, and they entered the house to greet Jesus with overwhelming joy. They had found what they were looking for. They felt awe. They felt awe.
Compare the magi’s joy with the other deep emotion expressed in this text. Fear. Herod felt great fright upon hearing of the magi’s quest. His response to Jesus is quite different than theirs. Joy versus fear. Openness versus secrecy. A search for the truth versus a mission sent forth with a lie. There is a very stark contrast between Herod and the magi, so much so that it offers us a reminder of how we choose to approach the divine encounters in our own lives.
Each New Year, many of us engage in the cultural tradition of setting resolutions, in an attempt to improve ourselves and our lives. Most of the time, those resolutions include things like exercising more, weighing less, eating more healthy food, eating less junk food, reading more, watching screens less. You get the idea. Here’s a question – how many of us have a resolution to experience awe in this new year? How many people have you ever heard make that resolution? Probably no one.
In a recent study, Pew Research discovered more people identifying as being ‘non-religious’ than any religious group. Sounds like a continuing pattern in American Christianity. But when Pew followed up with those who identified that way and asked some follow up questions, the researchers were surprised to learn that what the unreligious sought most in their lives was meaning and purpose, community, and to be inspired in their daily lives. It’s part of our humanity that we long to be filled with awe.
In one of my favorite sermons on this story, author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor aptly captures the essence of the magi, not only when they arrived or when they encountered the Christ child, but also upon their departure, when their hearts were filled with gifts greater than those they brought. Her words are such a gift, that they will mark the end of this sermon. She writes, “the wise men picked up their packs, which were lighter than before, and then they lined up in front of the baby to thank him for the gifts he had given them.
‘What in the world are you talking about?’ the baby’s mother laughed, and they told her so she could tell him later. ‘For this home and the love here,’ said the first wise man, who could not remember how to say it in runes. ‘For baby flesh,’ said the second wise man, who had no interest in living on herbs anymore. ‘For a really great story,’ said the third wise man, who thought telling it might do a lot more for him than walking on coals. Then, filled with awe, the wise men trooped outside, stretched, kissed the baby good bye, and went home by another way.” Amen.