Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
5 January 2020
In today’s Gospel we read about the wise men from the East who visit Jesus and the Holy Family. We mark this event with the Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation or showing forth of God to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ. God’s revelation to the non-Jewish wise men from the East means that Jesus came to redeem not just the Jews but all people. Jesus is Savior of the world.
One of the most popular hymns that we sing to celebrate the Epiphany is “We three Kings of Orient are.” We’ll be singing it soon today as our Post-Communion Hymn. I remember being very intrigued by this hymn when I was growing up. I’m going to date myself here, but there was a time when the term “Orient” was quite common. The term “Oriental” was not politically incorrect as it is today, and it was actually the term used to refer to people of Asian heritage like me. The term that we now use, of course, is “Asian-American.” So if we were to translate the title of this classic hymn into today’s politically correct English, it would be “We three Kings of Asia are.” What fascinated me about this hymn was the possibility that there might have been Asians or “Orientals” present at the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. And, in fact, in some visual depictions of the Three Kings or the Wise Men, there is usually one with distinctly Asian features, with the other two having African and white European features – a kind of United Nations in miniature.
Well, I was a bit disappointed to later learn that there was no Asian wise man. Neither was there an African or white European. According to historical scholarship the wise men were Middle Easterners, mostly likely Persians from the Parthian empire, which is present-day Iran. “Orient,” like “Asia,” is a pretty broad designation, and it refers to the Middle East as well as East Asia. I also learned a few other things. For one, the wise men weren’t kings; they were astrologers, trained in the study of the heavens and predictions of the future. And we don’t necessarily know that there were three of them. The passage from Matthew today simply refers to the “wise men from the East” and has no number or names. The Bible provides very little information on the wise men. But down through the centuries a rich tradition of legend and lore has developed around them in the Church.
A relatively recent, modern addition to the many layers of tradition about the wise men is a short novel written in the late nineteenth century by the Presbyterian minister Henry Van Dyke called The Story of the Other Wise Man. I remember being part of a Christmas pageant based on this story when I was little. Some of you may be familiar with the story, but for some reason we don’t seem to hear much about it these days. It’s a beautiful story, and I’d like to share with you the basic plot. In addition to the three wise men, there was a fourth wise man from Persia named Artaban. When he sees the Star signaling the birth of Jesus, he sells all his possessions and buys three precious jewels – a sapphire, a ruby, and a “pearl of great price” – to present to the new-born king. He arranges to rendezvous with the other three wise men to travel by caravan together.
But on his way, he comes across a dying man. Artaban cares for him, and the delay leads him to miss the appointed meeting with his colleagues. Not able to join the caravan, he is forced to sell one of the jewels, the sapphire, to buy his own camels and supplies for the journey. Artaban arrives in Bethlehem, but he comes too late. The Holy Family has fled to Egypt in the face of Herod’s persecution. But while in Bethlehem Artaban manages to save the life of a child from the slaughter by bribing one of the soldiers with the ruby. Artaban then travels to Egypt as well as many other places in search of Jesus but always one step behind, and during his journeys he performs other acts of charity. Finally, after 33 years of looking for Jesus, Artaban finally locates him, but again he is too late. Artaban finds Jesus nailed to a cross on Golgotha. While in Jerusalem, he uses his last jewel, the pearl, to ransom a young woman from being sold into slavery. Artaban, at the end of his life, is frustrated and disappointed that he has failed in his life mission to meet Jesus. But then a voice comes to him as he lies dying: “Truly I tell you, just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jesus had been present with Artaban all along throughout his long journey.
When our Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, there were very few people who were privileged to witness the event – some poor Jewish shepherds and a handful of Persian astrologers. But, like Artaban, the fourth wise man, we, the followers of Jesus, have endless opportunities to encounter Our Lord. When we help and serve those around us in need, we are encountering Jesus. And our ultimate encounter with Jesus occurs each time we come to the Altar for the Holy Eucharist. Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist, and we unite with His Presence through the Sacrament.
We usually focus on receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, but the Sacrament also involves the offering up of ourselves. And this is deeply embedded in the liturgy. The Offertory Sentence invites us to follow Jesus in giving of ourselves as an offering and sacrifice to God. And during the Offertory, we present our gifts at the Altar. We tend to think of our gifts mainly in terms of money, but in other parts of the world, Christians present various objects. In Haiti, for example, the worshipers present fruit, vegetables, and even live chickens during the Offertory. The Offertory is our opportunity to bring our gifts, just as the Wise Men brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Our Lord. But we possess a gift that far surpasses the value of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Like Artaban, the other wise man, we have the gift of our very selves to present to Our Lord and in service of those around us. I heard a sermon once in which the priest likened this offering of ourselves to having a gigantic alms basin and us climbing into it to be placed at the altar. I don’t think Fr. Charles or our Sacristy team would ever approve of such an inelegant gesture, but it gets the point across.
There is a lot we don’t know about the wise men from the East who visited and worshiped Jesus at his birth. But we do know that they began the powerful tradition of offering gifts to Our Lord, especially for this Season of Christmas. Dear friends, let us join the wise men from the East and bring to the Altar our gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But, above all, let us “offer and present unto [Our Lord,] our selves, our souls and bodies.” Amen.
 The main reason that the term “Oriental” became politically incorrect was the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978). In the book, Said explains the various ways in which the idea of the “Orient” is associated with Western imperialism.
 Henry Van Dyke, The Story of the Other Wise Man (CruGuru, 2008).
 Matthew 25:40.
 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979), 342.
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