In recent years I have, on more than one occasion, been moved to suggest that people might like to remove the wise men from their decorative Nativity scene during the Christmas season. When met with a quizzical riposte I explain that, while we do indeed celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, and the visitation of the shepherds; the arrival of the Magi with their other-worldly wisdom and prophetic gifts for the child, is the subject of the season of Epiphany, which doesn’t begin until January 6th. It is not until Epiphany, then, that the Magi should be added to a nativity scene. The problem with this, though, is that these days the Christmas decorations, nativity scenes included, are often tucked away back in the loft long before we are singing ‘As with gladness men of old …’ in church.
Let me move on before I am accused, with good cause, of excessive pedantry. Christmas is, of course, a season to remember the grace of God in sending His son to draw us back to Him in faith. This wonderful news is worth celebrating every day of the year, Christmas or not! It is epiphany, however, that shows us who are the objects of that grace. The Magi are not Jewish. We are not told whence they came, except that it was ‘from the east.’ They are foreigners, outsiders, strangers to the things of God. Two things we do know about them, though, are: they had encountered the Scriptures (likely during the Babylonian exile), read them, studied them, and believed. In so doing they had learned about the coming of a great king, God’s Messiah. They had journeyed to find him, and having found him, they worshipped him. They may have been outsiders, but Jesus became their king, their Messiah. The Apostle Paul later asks the question, ‘what advantage has the Jew? … Much in every way,’ he argues, ‘the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.’ (Rom 3v1-2). But if the ‘oracles’ are not read, studied and believed they are worthless. The pagan Magi learned that and became a lesson to those who thought they alone were recipients of God’s grace.
God’s grace, in His son Jesus Christ, was for all people. In reading, learning and believing the Scriptures then falling on their knees before Jesus, outsiders became insiders by the grace of God.
Mark Lucas is the Rector of St Botolph's Church, Kettering, and a Trustee of Bible by the Beach.