“Relief Sarcophagus: Holy Family with the Adoration of the Magi” by MCAD library is licensed under CC BY 2.0

For those who open this link and expect to learn more about combs and watch chains, I’m sorry to mislead you. It’s Epiphany, and today’s chronicle is about the theological implications of Matthew’s gospel story. Today I think of the post-birth account of the wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.

Risks of the Magi

Matthew’s second chapter is fraught with risks and threats. Reminder of the elements: the Magi come to celebrate the astrological sign of the birth of a new king. Herod hires them as informants. They present their gifts in the house of Mary and Joseph then change their route, deceiving Herod. He is furious and murders all the infants in the Bethlehem area. (In Matthew, Joseph and Mary are from Bethlehem and migrate to Nazareth to avoid the continued murder of Jewish children. In Luke, they already live in Nazareth and end up in Bethlehem as a result of the census.)

The astrologers in the East are the catalysts for all of this high Matthew drama. Herod hears of their investigations and scents the insurrection. He obviously cannot allow another king of the Jews to usurp his authority. Especially not during a fiscal cycle, as in Luke’s account, when Caesar relies on him to send funds back to Rome.

So the mages take so many risks. They risk a long journey west, carrying valuables across foreign lands. They risk an open investigation into a prophesied king. Plus, they take the unimaginable risk of challenging a puppet king with a Roman legion at his back.

Why? This is the central question of history, and the center of Epiphany theology. Mages take all of these risks just so they can give their gifts.

Gift exchanges

Gifts are at the heart of biblical history, beginning with the opening chapter of Genesis. God creates a world, one might say, like an economy for the exchange of gifts. The creation of the world is not, I mean, a contract between two existing partners, mutually beneficial to both. On the contrary, God gives a gift that has an existence written in it: I offer you life. Now, creation can be born and receive itself as a gift from the gifting God.

Likewise, the covenant with Abraham is not a contract with a pre-existing people from which God hopes to derive some benefit. The election of Israel is not God’s program for divine self-improvement. Instead, God creates the people, separates them as God once separated land and water, and does so as an unforeseen gift. I will make you a people. As a people, the children of Abraham can enjoy God’s blessing.

Most importantly, the gifts of life and election are not a unique divine gift. God does not drop the gift and go away, as if the life and blessing are creation or Israel to do what we love. Rather, the gift initiates an exchange. “I will bless you and make your name great, that you may be a blessing” (Gn 12: 2). I chose you freely; now freely chosen me, and freely chosen to give blessing gifts to each other.

Creatures are gifts that are received as givers of the Giver of all gifts. This means that our whole existence is made to take the form of exchanges of blessing with one another and with God.

Magi gifts

The story of the nativity has this same form. God chooses Mary as a repetition of God’s choice of Abraham. Her submission and her hymn of praise return gifts to the one who made her. She spreads the blessing through her womb, to Elizabeth and Zechariah. She gives the gift of covenant blessing.

But the world of Caesar and Herod is hostile to this generous economy of exchanged blessings. Matthew chapter two is a long version of a short acknowledgment in the gospel of John: “He came to what was his, and his own people did not accept him” (1:11). In Matthew, creation was lost sight of as an economy of blessing. Christ comes as a real gift, and the wise men respond with real gifts. And real gifts are a threat to an economy of subjugation, occupation and taxation. The Magi enter Judea as agents of subversion in a political landscape resistant to blessing.

So they follow the star, and risk so much, to give creation back its own economy. The true King of the Jews is the Lord of all creation. Thus, the wise non-Jews bring gifts to the king of which they themselves are already the gifts. They sing a Gentil Magnificat: We bring gifts to the Giver! May our gold, our incense and our myrrh be a promissory note to all nations. God gave us free blessing. Let us find ourselves as divine givers of gifts, of mutual blessings!

The exchange of gifts is our creation, and it is our salvation. This is what we find when we arrive at the house where Mary is dropping off her child. This is Epiphany, Charlie Brown.