Today is the feast of the Epiphany, a day when we remember especially the visit of the magi, wise men or kings to the baby Jesus. We know the carols about the kings of orient who bear their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We have given them names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Children have put on crowns and carried gifts in nativity plays. We see them riding or leading their camels on our Christmas cards. We allow them to arrive early and mingle with shepherds from another story.
The visitors from lands afar, those who followed the star, remind us of the obligation to welcome the stranger as one from whom we can learn and receive. They remind us not to underestimate the significance of the strangers who knock on our door but to welcome them in for we may be entertaining angels unaware.
The gifts that the strangers bring are gloriously inappropriate, extravagant and unexpected. The message carried in the gifts is no less a surprise - that this baby will be honoured as king and God and that his death is foreshadowed even in his birth.
The magi came, they brought their gifts, they followed their star and then returned another way avoiding Herod and perhaps delaying his response to the birth of a son to Mary and Joseph, ordinary folk blessed by God in God's complicated way.
The magi left, the family fled - I wonder what happened to the gold and the frankincense?
The myrrh could have been used many times over in the aftermath of that visit. As Herod's troops massacred the children, breaking their fragile, precious bodies, finding in their innocence a threat to grasped, snatched power. There were many small bodies to be anointed, many fathers and mothers left in despair, many children left alone as their young siblings died. The myrrh was useful all too soon, the gold and frankincense would have to wait their turn.
Epiphany, like Christmas, is a time when we can meet with God in our encounter with the baby whose birth brought joy, angel songs and extravagant gifts along with homelessness, flight and the slaughter of children.
In all these things God is with us.
This is a great mystery.