I wasn’t an English major in university, but I can still remember some of what I learned in my English classes in high school. Perhaps you also remember analyzing the plot of a narrative, and learning terms like setting, character, theme, crisis, climax, and dénouement.
I started thinking about high school English classes when I began to prepare for the service today. I Googled the term “Epiphany” to see what definitions would come up, and before the one that said “A Christian feast day commemorating the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child,” there was “epiphany” as a literary device: “An epiphany is an ‘Aha!’ moment. As a literary device, an epiphany is the moment when a character is suddenly struck with a life-changing realization which changes the rest of the story.”
Within the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel, the Christian Church has highlighted the first part of chapter two that we read today as an epiphany. And it seems to me that there are a number of people who could be experiencing epiphanies in and around this part of the story. There are the wise men themselves, who notice a new star in the sky. They search out its meaning, and what they discover leads them on an amazing journey to meet the Son of God. It’s probably not what they planned to be doing that year. It definitely changed their story.
It might also have been an epiphany for Jesus’ parents and family. Although they’ve already had some hints that their child will be quite special and important, especially with the angel’s visit to Joseph in chapter one. But the visit of the Magi must have really confirmed what they might have been suspecting. The strange occurrence of Gentile foreigners of great means coming to worship and bring gifts to their poor, Jewish baby would have been quite a surprise. And perhaps it helped them to understand the future for which they needed to start preparing their son.
But perhaps most important, the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is written to prompt an epiphany for the reader. For those of us who have been reading the Gospels our whole lives, it may not feel like an epiphany to have Jesus’ divine identity revealed in the story of the Magi. But imagine if you were reading the New Testament for the first time.
The first chapter of the Gospel lays out Jesus’ genealogical heritage, showing that he’s in the line of King David and Father Abraham, fulfilling the prophets’ expectations for a Messiah to come from that family. Then his miraculous conception is described, along with the prophecy that “he will save his people from their sins.”
But in chapter two something even more surprising happens. Instead of this child simply being a saviour or king for the People of Israel, it is revealed that he will be worshipped by Gentile foreigners as well as Jews. He will be a Messiah for all people, not just for some. His life and death and resurrection will not only change the future for one ethnic or religious community, but it will alter the story for the whole world.
The average Christian who is reading the Bible probably doesn’t often use their knowledge of literary devices in order to understand it better, but perhaps we should. Our tendency is to read the Scriptures in short sections. We choose a chapter, or even a part of a chapter to read on a given day, trusting that it will make sense on its own and we’ll be able to interpret its meaning for us today.
But the authors of each of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) wrote their accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry as coherent narratives. They’re not just records of what Jesus said and did, written down by an objective observer. Rather, each one of the authors has carefully crafted and edited their account of Jesus’ story in order to get a message across to those who will read it.
That’s one of the major reasons why the four Gospels tell some of the same stories, but in slightly different ways. It’s not because they each remembered the events differently or because some of them made mistakes. But it’s because they were trying to emphasize different things, for different readers, in a variety of early Christian communities that were trying to understand who Jesus was and how to follow him.
The Gospel writers were not just recorders of facts and information. They were story-tellers and poets and theologians and preachers. And here, in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, I think the author employs another literary device that I learned about in high school – foreshadowing.
Matthew narrates the story of Jesus for a Jewish-Christian community towards the end of the 1st century. Because of his particular audience he explains who Jesus was using lots of references to the Hebrew Scriptures that were an important part of their faith. He quotes from the prophets frequently, and shows how Jesus fulfilled their expectations for an expected Messiah.
With his wonderful teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is portrayed as the “New Moses” who both leads the People of Israel out of slavery to sin, and teaches them how to live and love as God intends. But then, as the story continues, Jesus slowly, but surely, begins to extend his ministry and his teaching beyond the Jewish people to the Gentiles and to all who wish to come to him for help, healing, and guidance.
By the end of the story, after Jesus has died and been raised again, he stands on a mountain, like Moses did, with his disciples, and he commissions them. Earlier in the story, they’d been sent out to proclaim the good news in the Jewish towns and villages. But now they are sent out into the world with the Great Commission to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; and teaching them to obey everything that I have taught you.”
If you read Matthew chapter two at Christmas, and you read Matthew chapter 28 at some other time of the year, you might not notice the connection. But if you read through the whole Gospel as a narrative it becomes more obvious. The Magi are foreshadowing Jesus’ mission to the world – to be the Saviour of all the people.
In case you don’t remember, foreshadowing is a narrative device in which suggestions or warnings about events to come are dropped or planted. The term itself sounds kind of ominous, suggesting that it’s usually negative events that are being warned about or hinted at.
The most famous literary example of foreshadowing comes from Romeo and Juliet when Romeo says this: “My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.” This line foreshadows Romeo’s eventual fate: committing suicide over the loss of Juliet.
But in the case of the Magi’s visit, there are both negative and positive things hinted at. Their identity as Gentiles foreshadows Jesus’ mission growing to include all people. But the gifts they bring also foreshadow some things about Jesus’ life and identity.
The gift of gold seems to indicate that Jesus will be a king, as the Magi’s astrological guidance had suggested. There’s nothing too surprising about that gift. But the second gift of frankincense carries a little more meaning.
Most of us only know of frankincense from this story, or from the “We Three Kings” carol. But it was a fragrant gum resin that is exuded in large, light yellowish-brown tears from Boswellia trees. It was a rare and expensive substance that had a number of uses. It could be used for secular purposes as a perfume, but it appears most frequently in the Bible in a religious context. It was the incense used in many religious ceremonies – a special incense used by the priests, the only incense permitted on the altar.
So the Magi could be indicating that Jesus will become a priest who will offer frankincense in the worship of God in the temple. But we know that it’s more than that. The frankincense foreshadows what will be revealed in time about Jesus’ identity – that he is the Son of God, the very presence of the divine on earth – and that he himself deserves our worship.
The final gift they bring is myrrh, and this is probably the one that best shows the literary device of foreshadowing – a kind of early warning of things to come. It’s another unfamiliar product of ancient times, and a plant product similar to the frankincense. It was actually used in incense too, as a perfume for garments, or for cosmetics. But the use that is mentioned in the Gospels in embalming.
The modern equivalent of this gift might be for someone to buy a cemetery plot for a baby that has just been born. I’m not sure that the parents would appreciate that, even if it would eventually become a valuable gift. In this case, the myrrh points to something that we already know about Jesus’ life and legacy. Not only will he be the King of kings and Lord of lords, but he will be also die very young – executed by the state for blasphemy without a proper trial, betrayed and denied by his friends.
Of course, we know that death is not the end of the story for Jesus as it was for Romeo. In literary terms, it’s just the climax of the narrative which will eventually be resolved with a happy ending. Yes, Jesus died, and it was terrible and awful. But on the third day he rose again from the dead. And because he is raised, we also will be raised.
I’ve been reading a lot of biographies and autobiographies lately, and I’m finding it so interesting to discover how various people tell the stories of their lives. I don’t know if I could ever write my own autobiography, or what events, crises, and epiphanies I would want to highlight if I did.
But I do hope that my story will stay connected to Jesus’ story. I mean that whatever challenges and crises I experience in this New Year or in the years ahead, that I’ll remember that those aren’t the end of the narrative. I hope that the main themes will involve using my life and my gifts to serve and bring more love and peace into the world. I hope that there will be some fun chapters with joy and laughter in community too.
But most of all, I hope that I won’t be worried about the ending. And I hope that you won’t be worried about your ending either. Because the foreshadowing we have received from the Great Author of all our stories does not point to pain and death, but to life everlasting.
Friends, may you walk with Jesus as you discover where your story will take you in 2024. May your year ahead be blessed with epiphanies that send you in good directions, crises that you know can be resolved, and the deep assurance that your story is unfolding as it should.