It’s easy to make a big mistake today, and to think of “the wise men from the east” (Matt 2:1-12) as exotic foreigners. Actually, of course, as far as Mary and Joseph were concerned, we are just as foreign as those wise men were. Indeed, unless we happen to be Jewish, Jesus would also have thought of all of us as “foreigners”. That’s precisely why this Feast is so important, and so distinct from Christmas; because these exotic foreigners represent us. Do you remember what Jesus said when only one leper came back to say thank you? “Has no-one come back …except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18) You might be shocked at this, but it shows us very clearly how human Jesus was, and how much he identified with his own people, whilst holding to the greater vision of a time when all nations would come, like the wise men, to seek the light, as we heard in our 1st Reading today (Isaiah 60:1-6)
That’s one of the glories of being a Christian, that we can both be proud of our own heritage, whatever that may be – so I love being English despite the rain – but are even more proud that we have been transformed, by being Christians, into citizens of heaven. Thus, wherever we live, we can be at home and yet, like the wise men, are always foreigners who belong to a different land. In the early years of Christianity, a famous Christian writer Justin Martyr wrote about us just like this (Epistle to Diognetus Ch.5)
“Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. … They dwell in their own countries, but simply as immigrants. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.”
Working out exactly what that means for each one of us is not going to be easy, but it is something we should do regularly. Why? Because “the world” that we are part of, wherever that may be, is very keen on persuading us to be just like them. And of course, we want to be, for it is hard to be different; and yet we must be, if we are to be true to Jesus, to be one with him. I expect the wise men were made fun of back home, for setting out on their foolish journey. And when they came back home, I expect they were laughed at again for making such a fuss about one tiny baby, who most of the world simply ignored. Just like us you see!
Might I suggest that we might become more like them by considering the gifts that they brought to Jesus? Pictures often show them bringing great caskets full of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but given that the Holy Family did not then become incredibly rich, the actual gifs must have been tiny tokens, symbols of something much greater, and that must be the same for us. Anyway, let’s look at them, but the wrong way round, as I think it might help.
Myrrh was the ointment used to prepare a dead body for burial. It’s a vivid reminder of where this tiny baby would end up – dying on a cross and dead in a tomb. We are called then to offer Jesus our life even to the point of dying for him, as he died for us. But how do we do that? For some Christians today this is a frightening possibility, especially in Syria and Iraq at the moment, and in parts of Nigeria and Mali. But for most of us it must mean living a sacrificial life for others, caring about others and their needs above our own, just like that foreigner, the Good Samaritan, who risked his life to care for the man left dying in the road.
Frankincense is used in prayer and worship. It is a reminder that we must spend time in prayer allowing God the Holy Spirit to work in us so that we can be transformed into what we are called to be – citizens of heaven. We are not called to be like Christ, but to live “in Christ” – to soak ourselves in God, to make real the prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”
So finally Gold proclaims Jesus as King. It is so easy to allow things in this world to dominate our attention, isn’t it? Our work, our home, our possessions, our money, our health and fitness, or our lack of it! How easy it is to turn our natural concerns into obsessions, to “worry and fret” and to forget about the really important things that we are called to be if we are to be fully human. How easy it is to be slaves to such things, and to forget that Jesus calls us to a freedom in which we use such things not for ourselves but to the glory of God and in the service of others.