My first walk to work in the New Year will be on Monday, Jan. 4. Starlight, a waning crescent moon and streetlights will illuminate my steps. Dark and cold easily characterize the early days of January in the Yukon. Pessimism and feelings of hopelessness can follow entrain. For about 10 per cent of northerners an actual type of depression, seasonal affective disorder, is triggered by the lack of sunlight at this time of year. As well the elderly, virtually trapped inside their homes by the cold and inclement conditions, can face increased loneliness. The stress of holiday bills coming due may touch others.
Yet the light slowly begins coming back now. At first only a few seconds of sunlight are added to each day. Soon, though, there will be minutes more gained with each turn of our planet. From the winter solstice in December to the summer solstice in June we gain an additional 13 hours and 32 seconds of sunlight in Whitehorse. Always with that natural increase in light optimism and hope seem to come as a revelation.
Matthew tells us a story in the gospel for Epiphany of long-ago travellers who journeyed in the dark. They followed a star. Prophecies or something in their lore had linked the unusual rising of a star with a special birth, the coming of a king. They came “to pay him homage.” At the end of their trek a Saviour was revealed to them. Even as an infant his presence was made manifest to the world.
We know very little from Matthew about who these travellers were, only that they are “from the East.” No exact number is given for these visitors. Varying traditions have as many as 12 or as few as two coming to pay homage to the infant Jesus. In Matthew’s account, which is the only scriptural source that mentions them, they come bearing three gifts: “gold, frankincense and myrrh.” This sparks the most popular belief that there were three Magi, each offering one of the gifts.
These three gifts bear meaning. They serve as prophetic symbols of Jesus’ identity. The incense called frankincense, used in temple worship, alludes to Jesus’ priesthood. Gold speaks of Jesus’ kingship and myrrh, a balm used in preparing bodies for burial, foretells of Jesus’ death in atonement for the sins of humanity.
No names are recorded for the Magi. No country of origin given. The earliest translations of Matthew don’t even really confirm the gender of the Magi. The Greek word magos only refers to aristocrats of the Median nation or more particularly to Zoroastrian astronomer-priests.
Born in humble circumstances into a Jewish family, in a country occupied by Romans who worshipped many gods, the infant had practitioners of an ancient monotheistic religion among the first to come to kneel before him. The gentile Magi welcomed the divine into the world whereas the leaders in his own homeland didn’t. King Herod “was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.” Did they perceive a threat to their worldly power and control? Had fear rather than hope gripped them?
The popular story we have become familiar with had taken form by the fourth century. By the sixth century three Magi had assumed names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Their witness to the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity ring out clearly in the ever expanding telling of this story. These sorely needed virtues are as much a balm today as then in what continues to be a dangerously indifferent and damaged world. Each generation must in its own context and time seek meaning anew in this story.
On every continent, in every corner of the world now at the end of the Christmas season we have heard these ancient stories told and retold again this year. In the reading from Paul we see the very beginnings of the opening up of the message they bring to the world. Now nearly a third of the world’s population follow one of the many variegated strands of Christianity.
Still all too often we find ourselves walking in darkness and despair. Aren’t we called as Christians to “Arise, shine, for your light has come”? The Christmas season should cause our hearts to “thrill and rejoice.” We know that we should be Christ-bearers bringing his light into the world through the ages and to every corner of the globe. This is our challenge, our hope, our mission.
How do we defeat the despair, gloom and darkness around us? (With apologies to Howard Thurman) Our Christmas Work Begins Now!
When the carols have been stilled,
when the star-topped tree is taken down,
when family and friends are gone home,
when we are back to our schedules,
the work of Christmas begins:
to welcome the refugee,
to heal a broken planet,
to feed the hungry,
to build bridges of trust, not walls of fear,
to share our gifts,
to seek justice and peace for all people,
to bring his light to the world.
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.