Note: The first section is from a 2014 reflection, “Gifts for a Baptism”
By the time the wise ones get to Bethlehem—or is it Nazareth by now? —the baby who, this time last year was gurgling angelically in the manger and waving his little toes, has discovered how to open the pantry. He can reach the shelf with the Sabbath candles and the precious Torah scroll; he’s having fun with the wood-shavings in Joseph’s workshop, and banging everything with a hammer.
Whoever they are and wherever they’re from, the Magi aren’t gathered romantically around the manger, with picturesquely mooing cows and lullaby-baaing sheep. With the precious gifts hidden safely away, the little lad’s having fun with the packaging. And Mary, no beautiful blue draperies and Madonna smile, is preparing meals for Joseph and her step-sons, keeping an eye on the toddler Jesus, negotiating kitchen space with a disapproving mother-in-law and trying to ignore the gossip. Joseph has married her and named the child, but they still talk of Jesus as the son of Mary.
And yet—wise ones sought him.
Perhaps early artists got the spirit right, with their crowded nativity scenes: Magi and shepherds and family and neighbours, patrons and village gossips, merchants and royalty, creatures great and small, human and animal, all gathering in wonder at the miracle and promise of the new-born. As we do, giving and taking meaning and reinterpreting the stories in our ways, for our places and times.
Memories of Passover and Hanukkah, Greek myths and Roman fables, Aramaic folklore and Galilean fisherfolk wisdom; Jewish Temple rites and pagan festivities. And Matthew’s special spin on the story: family stories passed on, in jest, by Jesus’ brothers when they come together as adults. A birth narrative to show how very special this child will be, written to appeal to Jewish listeners, troubled by newcomers, gentiles, who claim to follow the rabbi, Jesus.
Memory and mystery
Thanks largely to the carol we just sang [We Three Kings of Orient], and maybe to sermons, I assumed frankincense and myrrh were only for embalming. I’ve included images of the frankincense and myrrh—along with gold—because I’m fascinated to find their symbolism and practical use is so much richer, inspiring me to create a more inclusive, contemporary carol that we’ll sing after this Reflection.
Because the wise ones are described as coming “from the East”, I looked for images of gold from China, contemporary with the time of Jesus’ birth. The gold coins were from the Han Dynasty which lasted from 206 BC–AD25.
Both frankincense and myrrh are resins – hardened sap from trees. In both cases, trees are slashed and allowed to “bleed.” The sap hardens and forms beads or “tears.”
The prettier Boswellia carterii on the left is the source of frankincense; as an essential oil, it’s used for healing scars, stretch marks and stress. Frankincense can be very effective as an anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic, and because it can slow down and deepen the breath, it’s been used for thousands of years in ceremonial incense for meditation and prayer.
The spiky myrrh—on the right—is native to the Arabian Peninsula and Africa. The word myrrh corresponds with a common Semitic root word meaning “bitter”. Oil of myrrh was used for women’s purification, including by Esther as the new queen to King Ahasuerus. Myrrh was an ingredient of the consecrated incense, vital in Jerusalem’s Temple Services, and the holy oil for anointing high priests and kings.
In the Far East, myrrh was used for healing, including wound healing, digestive health, to balance women’s issues, and to slow bleeding. Perhaps the Wise Ones brought healing substances for Jesus’ after birth… as well as for Mary in her postpartum discomfort.
Who would have thought to do this?
Dominican Fr. Benedict Thomas Viviano, an authority on the Gospel of Matthew, believes it’s entirely possible that women could have been among the mages in his birth narrative. Matthew is the only Gospel that says anything about them, and his use of the Greek masculine plural magoi for magi can be used inclusively, just as the English word “men” often includes women.
Viviano specializes in examining the book of Matthew in light of its literary connections to the Hebrew Bible. Even though Matthew 1-2 is not strictly a Midrash—since it is not about the Old Testament—it “employs Midrashic techniques” to interpret the person of Jesus. He relates “the presence of one or more women among the magi [to] the background story of the queen of Sheba, with her quest for Israelite royal wisdom, her reverent awe, and her three gifts fit for a king.”
Viviano points to the phrase “the child and his mother”, used in Matthew’s narrative. “The presence of Jesus’ mother Mary is an explicit statement of the presence of a woman at the time of the magi’s visit. It is a question of attending to the feminine resonances in the text.”
Commenting on Viviano’s analysis, Sr Christine Schenk writes: “…in the Middle East it would have been inconceivable for men to be in the presence of a woman without the presence of other women. Joseph is conspicuously absent when the Magi visit. This is surprising, since Matthew’s infancy account normally narrates events from the point of view of Joseph.”
Mysterious visitors, with mysterious gifts
Chris Schenk again: “Scholars tell us that the magoi were a caste associated with the interpretation of dreams, astrology, Zoroastrianism and magic. In support of Benedict Viviano’s thesis, Zoroastrianism allowed women to serve as priests and in ancient Persia there were female astronomers and rulers. “… the overriding message of Matthew’s Magi narrative is that learned, wise foreigners—the ultimate ‘outsiders’ for his Jewish-Christian audience—came to pay homage to a newborn ruler… whose spiritual power and wisdom surpassed their own.”
If there had been wise women instead of wise men on the scene, who would they have been?
“The innkeeper’s wife surely would be one of them,” suggests an article by ecclesial women, Adorers of the Blood of Christ, in the US. “Who else would have thought of the barn as a safe and warm place for the pregnant woman to deliver her child?” they write. “She must have sent her husband to move the animals around, muck the stall, and prepare the fresh straw and manger. She saw Mary’s fatigue and Joseph’s worry as she sent all scurrying to do her bidding and led them to wait by the fire until all was ready.
They suggest a cook and a midwife would also have been present. “Joseph would not have assisted at the birth because blood would have made him unclean… [She] would prepare for the birth and she alone would be the first to hold the child Jesus and present him to his mother, Mary. We think all three of these wise women were there at the birth of Jesus. All life is holy, and they saw the Holiest of the Holy being born.”
Memory. Mystery. Meaning.
So much of our memory and our understanding is speculative. We weave together stories and ideas and phrases—like strands of harakeke—to create a blanket to warm us or a garment that fits our worldview.
We can get callouses from the repetition. Sometimes we need strands that are more colourful; sometimes the jar of costly balm is broken, the rod of Jesse slashed and bleeding, a spiky plant is twisted and bent to form a crown.
In “Epiphany” by Vermont artist Janet McKenzie, a multi-racial trio of female Magi visits the baby Jesus and his mother. Barbara Marian, who commissioned the painting, says, “More than a few people have asked about the gender of the tallest Magi in [the] image. Male? Female? Trans? I find that stunningly wonderful because possibly three minority groups might be embodied in this portrait in the eyes and imaginations of so many viewers!”
She adds, “It’s easy to get so caught up in regal images of Matthew’s night visitors that we miss the core message — Christ for all people.”
“The unconventional portrayal of the Magi makes good theological sense. The story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew allowed the Jewish followers of Jesus to imagine the unthinkable—God’s grace extending to the outsiders, the gentiles. Who are the outsiders in our world? Can we imagine the favour of God extending beyond the human boundaries of race, class, nationality, ethnicity, religious devotion, and gender?”
Isaiah reminds us: “Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you”—Magicians, wise women, generous visitors.
Treasures from around the world, and the gift of wisdom.
Grace extending to the gentiles, the outsiders.
Dreamers and visionaries, shepherds and carpenters.
And here we are:
Star-led people of all ages, all backgrounds, all faiths, meeting around a child of hope and wonder, sharing the good news. The love we share at Christmas and the wonder of Epiphany inspiring us, to recognise in every being, a precious God-child and Gift.
For this is our story, our epiphany, our moment of realization: “Arise, shine, for our light has come.”
Spangle of angels, babe in a manger
Sparks in our eyes, stars in the sky.
Spinning our stories, memory and mystery.
Joy to the world! Come and see!
Resources and attributions:
Adorers of the Blood of Christ, rooted in the Gospel of Jesus, are ecclesial women, living in community, witnessing God’s love in Mission to empower others, foster oneness, celebrate life, form right relationships, and walk as compassionate companions.
Cherry, Kittredge. Queer Epiphany – Three kings or three queens? http://qspirit.net/queer-epiphany/. Rev. Kittredge Cherry is a lesbian Christian author, minister and art historian who offers gay-friendly spiritual resources at JesusInLove.org. Ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), Kitt was at the forefront of the homosexuality debates at the National Council of Churches (USA) and the World Council of Churches as MCC’s National Ecumenical Officer.
Schenk, Christine. An Epiphany with Wise Women Jan 7, 2016 National Catholic Reporter. A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master’s degrees in nursing and theology.
Viviano, Fr Benedict Thomas. Viviano is professor emeritus at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. He also wrote the commentary on Matthew in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Fr. Benedict is a New Testament scholar and a member of the Chicago Province of the Dominican Order.
Arise, shine: Isaiah 60
Biblical health: https://drericz.com/truth-about-gold-frankincense-and-myrrh/
Commiphora myrrha: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commiphora_myrrha
Frankincense and Myrrh: https://www.diynatural.com/frankincense-and-myrrh/
Spiritual and Physical Healing: http://www.redrootmountain.com/frankincense-and-myrrh-part-1-spiritual-and-physical-healing-for-the-holidays/24
You can use this written work under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License.