Because of my work on the Magi, people often ask me what I would preach about on Epiphany, if I were someone who was going to preach on Epiphany. Here’s a stab at that:
When they saw the star they celebrated with a joy that was exceedingly great. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling down, they honored him. They opened their chests and offered him gifts: gold, incense, and myrrh. Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned to their own land by another route (Matt 2:10–12).
So ends Matthew’s story of the Magi, those mysterious travelers who journeyed to Bethlehem to pay tribute to the one born King of the Judeans.
I have thought a lot about these characters over the past few years. I even have a book to show for it. I’ve pondered how Matthew and his earliest readers may have understood them, and also how they’ve been understood by others through the centuries. But today, I’m thinking about the ending of this story. Today I’m also thinking about hospitality and the stranger.
When I discuss the story of the Magi in my classes, I try to get students to grasp the strangeness of it by having them imagine a scenario in which a new baby has arrived in their home. Friends and family are gathered in the living room, huddled in a near-silent combination of awe and exhaustion. It is a new baby, after all, and these creatures are both awe-inspiring and exhausting.
But now, in the quietness of that tranquil scene, there’s a knock at the door. Someone goes to answer it, and there on the front porch are men that no one in the house has ever seen or heard of. They’re not family, friends, or extended family, they didn’t call ahead to announce their arrival, but they want to see the baby, and they’ve got presents. Weird, right?
When I ask students what they would do in a situation like this one I’ve described, they usually respond with some version of “shut the door and maybe call the police if they don’t leave the porch.” And if we’re being honest, that’s probably reasonable.
But this isn’t the story that Matthew tells. The door isn’t closed, and no police are called.
One of the hallmarks of the Magi story is, of course, the paucity of detail. The Magi arrive at Jesus’s house in Bethlehem, and Matthew doesn’t even bother to say that they knocked at the door. In this part of the story, they simply enter, see Mary and Jesus, bow, present their gifts, and then leave. That’s it.
It is important to note that this legendary tale does not exist to inform readers about “what actually happened” in Bethlehem and Jerusalem in the first century; it is best understood as part of Matthew’s attempt to portray Jesus as the anointed King of the Judeans (among other things). The “truth” of the Magi story is therefore found in what the story means, not in the extent to which it is historically accurate (or not).
As I am thinking about the Magi today, on Epiphany, I’m also thinking about something that Matthew almost certainly didn’t intend as a potential meaning of his story. Today, I’m thinking about the ease with which these characters move from place to place, and the lack of resistance that they encounter from Mary when they arrive at her home to see the tiny king. As I am thinking about the Magi today, I am thinking about doors.
On Epiphany Sunday, many Christians around the world use chalk to mark their doors with a combination of numbers, crosses, and letters. This year, the markings will read “20 + C + M + B + 23.”
The numbers in this formula signify the year that has just begun and which also lies ahead, and the letters in the middle have a double meaning. They are an abbreviation for the Latin Christus mansionem benedicat (“May Christ bless this house”), as well as the first letters of the traditional names of the Magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.
As is the case with all rituals, the significance of these markings will differ from house to house and from person to person. Some may see them as a simple home blessing, a request that their god might look favorably on their house and the activities transpiring in it. Others may understand the symbols as a spell to ward off malevolent spirits.
But what if, instead, we saw these markings as a reminder to be hospitable to the stranger? What if we saw this ritual as signifying that our doors should be open instead of barricaded shut? A challenging message, to be sure.
In the United States today, tens of millions of people have constructed their religio-political identities on a platform of brazen and unapologetic xenophobia. In their view, being a “good citizen” means looking at the outsider with suspicion and hatred instead of care and compassion. It is tempting to highlight Trumpian “build the wall” chants as the starting point, but the unfortunate truth is that rhetoric like this is a symptom of the underlying condition, not the cause of it.
A quick scroll through the social media accounts of certain elected government officials and their supporters produces a flood of hatred toward immigrants. “There’s a crisis at the southern border” is a common rallying cry. The same is true for references to people as “illegal.” There is a consistent emphasis on the profound differences between “us” and “them.” And if you disagree with any of this rhetoric, then clearly you’re not included when they speak of “We the people.”
Much of this rhetoric comes from individuals who identify as Christian, and at least statistically speaking, many of them are likely to have the markings of the Magi over their doors. If we take seriously the history of Christianity, then it should come as no surprise that so many Christians today view the world in terms of who is “in” and who is “out,” who is “blessed” and who is “damned.” This type of rhetoric, while both toxic and unfortunate, is also an indisputable part of the Christian theological fabric.
But I want to suggest that the story of the Magi can also be read as a challenge to this history, as providing “another route,” as it were.
The Magi in Matthew come from a faraway place that is not specified. Matthew simply says that they travel from “the East.” They are, in this sense, “foreigners.” But when they reach their destination — Bethlehem — they are not carded, put in cages, dehumanized, called “illegal” and then deported. They are not accused of being drug dealers, rapists, or freeloaders, and there is no fear that they are coming to take someone’s job.
To the contrary, in Matthew’s story they are welcomed. Without detail or fanfare, they are welcomed into the presence of the one they seek, they with all of their gifts and whatever baggage they travel with. We do well to recognize this point, however subtle and however insignificant it may seem.
Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem. It’s a rich story, and there is so much to be said about it. But today I focus on and end with a few questions: Were the Magi to arrive today, having journeyed from a faraway place, probably dressed a bit differently, and maybe a bit smelly, how would they be received? Would they find an open door? A locked gate? Or perhaps a big wall? And if these questions trouble you, take some time to think about why.