Sermon Ideas For Matthew 2:1-12 Part 3
Raymond Brown says that the enrichment that imagination and devotion have brought to the Matthean story of the magi is a remarkable example of Christian midrash. No one explores that midrash better than Brown himself, in his landmark work The Birth of the Messiah, pp. 166-201. Here you get the latest research on whether these guys were Persian, Babylonians, or Syrians; and whether they were following a supernova, a comet, or a planetary conjunction, which is also conveniently arranged in a triad: Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars.
Of course persistent tradition would have it that there were three of these "Magi," but Matthew doesn't say so. Early Church art shows either two or four, and Augustine favored 12, for obvious symbolic reasons. It was Tertullian who linked the Magi with O.T. prophecies of kings bearing gifts, and by the sixth century, it was three kings because there were three gifts.
By the eighth century the Kings had names and physical attributes: Melchior (the old man with the gold), Balthazar (mature, with the myrrh), and Gaspar (a young man bearing frankincense). Each was given a domain, with Balthazar usually depicted as African. In 1370 a monk, John of Hildensheim wrote "The Story of the Three Kings," which has them all coming from India, meeting the shepherds on the way to the manger, and returning to found a city called Suwella, where the star reappears when it is time for them to die together, at the ages of 116, 112, and 109! Historically, three bodies said to be the Kings were taken from Milan to Cologne in 1164, where the predictable pilgrim's shrine was erected. As for the gifts themselves, speculative symbolism abounds, but the medieval Jacobus de Vorgine suggests pragmatically that the gold was intended to ease Mary's poverty (or perhaps to fund the holy family's flight to Egypt?), the frankincense to ward off stable smells and the myrrh to deter the stable's vermin.
The whole world could not contain the pictorial depictions of this passage; Christmas cards and manger scenes and nativity sets and creches abound with artistic representations. Usually the focal point is the presentation of the gifts, or perhaps the journey by the star. But the stone sculpture on the cathedral at Ulm, Germany, shows Herod's meeting with the Magi; all mounted on horseback! And a stone carving in the Cathedral of St. Lazare in Autun, France, shows the Kings, three in a bed, as the angel awakens them!
The Matthean account of the Magi has also given rise to much literature, including stories about a fourth magi (by Roger Vercel), a fourth gift of a tin dog (by Heywood Broun) and a play in which the angel's voice is offstage (by Henri Gheon). One of the most enduring pieces of literature is the eighteenth-century poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Three Kings":
Three Kings came riding from far away, Melchoir and Gaspar and Balthazar; Three Wise Men out of the East were they, And they travelled by night and slept by day, For their guide was a beautiful wonderful star... Three caskets they bore on their saddle-bows, Three caskets of gold with golden keys; Their robes were of crimson silk, with rows Of bells and pomegranates and furbelows, Their turbans like blossoming almond-trees... They laid their offerings at his feet: The gold was their tribute to a King; The frankincense, with its odor sweet, Was for the Priest, the Paraclete; The myrrh for the body's burying.
But the most memorable poetry about the kings comes from T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi":
A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter. And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet. Then the camel men cursing and grumbling And running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices: A hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, Sleeping in snatches, With the voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, And three trees on the low sky, And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, And feet kicking the empty wine-skins. But there was no information, and so we continued And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory. All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.