In Christmas pageants, elements of this story are tacked onto Luke’s birth story (2:1-20), but in reality they are very different stories and the visit of the Magi deserves to be known in all its richness.
1st Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
Light is the primary image of this feast. In this reading, Isaiah prophecies that the people themselves are to be a light, a light to all the nations. This was one of two lines of thought in post-exilic Israel. The other, represented by the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, was to strengthen the barrier between Israel and the nations. Isaiah imagines the nations being drawn to Israel and Israel’s God. This reading also includes images that appear in the Gospel story, camels bringing those from far away bearing gifts.
60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Psalm 72 is a royal psalm, perhaps from the coronation liturgy. It lays out the king’ responsibilities, justice and righteousness for all his people. Again there is imagery of peoples from far away coming to bear gifts. Note they do so because they are attracted by the king’s extraordinary treatment of those who are weak, needy, or oppressed.
1 Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King’s Son;
2 That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;
3 That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.
4 He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
5 He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.
6 He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.
7 In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
10 The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, *
and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.
11 All kings shall bow down before him, *
and all the nations do him service.
12 For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, *
and the oppressed who has no helper.
13 He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; *
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.
14 He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence,
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.
2nd Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12
Paul speaks eloquently of the plan of God to reveal himself to the Gentiles, the plan he believes always existed but was hidden until the coming of Christ and the mission Paul has been given. This radical plan is that Jews and Gentiles become one.
3:1 This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—2 for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, 3 and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, 4 a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. 5 In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6 that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 7 Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8 Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
In Christmas pageants, elements of this story are tacked onto Luke’s birth story (2:1-20), but in reality they are very different stories and the visit of the Magi deserves to be known in all its richness. The wise men (magoi in Greek) were likely astrologers and emissaries of foreign courts. They were not “kings” (a notion that came from the Isaiah reading and the psalm for today). They also were not necessarily three in number. The text does not give them a number; we have implied it from the three gifts. Those gifts are highly symbolic in nature: gold for a ruler, incense for a priest, myrrh for one who is to die. Revelation comes to people in the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel via dreams (1:20, 2:12, 2:13, 2:19, 2:22). The prophecy concerning Bethlehem is from Micah 5:2. That the wise men first went to Jerusalem to consult the current king was only natural, but the “king” they seek is of a very different nature.
2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The Scripture quotations (except for the psalm) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved. The Psalm translation is from The Book of Common Prayer. Commentaries are copyright © 2019, Epiphany ESources, 67 E. Main St., Hornell, NY 14843, www.epiphanyesources.com. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to copy for group study. Worship bulletin inserts are available. For more information visit our website.