January 6, 2008
It is still Christmas, you know. Even though our celebrations may be fading into memory, and our decorations are being packed away, and despite the Valentine displays popping up in all in the stores, it’s still Christmas. Today marks the 12th day of Christmas, and it is also the day we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany is a day that goes largely unnoticed by the secular world—you won’t find Epiphany cards at the Hallmark store, or Epiphany sales in the mall, you won’t hear Epiphany hymns on the radio or see Epiphany specials on TV. In one way, that’s a relief—there’s still a part of Christmas that hasn’t been secularized, but in another way, it’s too bad. It’s too bad because the Feast of the Epiphany gives us once last chance to celebrate the real meaning of Christmas. The word epiphany comes from the Greek epipheinen which means to show, to make manifest—and what is Christmas about if it is not about declaring, showing to the world WHO this child is whose humble birth we commemorate? On Epiphany we declare this again aswe mark the coming of the magi, the wise guys from the east, who led by a star come to pay homage to this child, and whose coming helps reveal to all the world the unique status of the babe born in Bethlehem.
Two weeks ago, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, some of you may recall that I asked you to enter with me into the narrative of the evangelist Matthew and to consider the Christmas story just as he tells it. To grasp the full impact of the magi’s visit, I’d like for us to reenter that narrative world. Remember that in Matthew’s telling of the story, we learn of the impending birth from the perspective of Joseph, not Mary. We know that after an angel speaks to Joseph in a dream, telling him that Mary’s child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, he takes the pregnant Mary as his wife, and in due time a son is born whom he names Jesus. And that’s all we know. There is no stable, no manger, there are no shepherds watching over their flocks and no angelic host—there is nothing to mark this birth as special, as extraordinary when it takes place. Matthew doesn’t even tell us what Mary knows or thinks about this whole event. It is an event that seems to take place without much notice.
But when we rejoin the story today we learn that this birth has not gone unnoticed after all. On the contrary, it has cause quite a stir. Magi—astrologers or wise men—from the east have been reading the skies, and have taken note of an unusual heavenly occurrence—a new star, perhaps a comet, or a particular alignment of heavenly bodies. Whatever it is, the magi read it as a sign, a sign that a new king will be born in Palestine. Deciding that they should pay homage to this king, they embark on a journey to the west, and finally arrive in Bethlehem where they find Mary and the baby at home.
Now remember, we’re hearing this story as Matthew tells it. Mary, as far as we know, hasn’t seen any angels. There haven’t been any special visitors. We might even imagine that if Joseph took her as his wife quietly and unobtrusively to avoid any hint of scandal, this young family might be living somewhat in seclusion. In any event, this birth has not been heralded in any way except for Joseph’s dream.
So imagine what it must have been like when mysterious travelers from the east arrived at the door. Tradition tells us that there were three, but we don’t really know how many magi there were—it could’ve been 2 or it could’ve been a dozen. In any event they arrive at the door, and when they see the baby, they fall prostrate on the floor—a sign of respect due only to royalty. And then they present magnificent gifts—gold, always of great worth, and frankincense and myrrh, oils of such value that they were beyond the reach of ordinary folks like Mary and Joseph. We don’t know what kind of conversations took place, nor do we know how long these wise guys stayed. All we know is that once they had paid homage to the infant Jesus and presented their gifts, they returned to their homes, their work done.
At this point you might be saying, so what? It’s a great story, with lots of dramatic effect, but what is the real meaning of the magi’s visit—what it did it mean for Matthew’s original audience, and what it might mean for us, some 2000 years later. Let’s take a look a that.
In the gospel according to Matthew, the evangelist goes to great lengths to show how both the birth of Jesus, and his later ministry fulfill the ancient prophecies, prophecies that the people of Israel would have been intimately familiar with. In our readings during Advent we, too, heard some of those prophecies. Using them, Matthew builds a strong case to show that this baby, this Jesus, is in fact the king, the messiah, the savior the people of Israel, the Jews, have been waiting for.
But here come these wise guys from the east—they are not part of the house of Israel, they don’t know the scriptures, they aren’t waiting for a messiah. So why are they part of the story? Just for dramatic effect? Just as a plot twist to get Herod involved? I don’t think so. The role of the magi is much more important than that. The magi, the wise guys who were learned in many ways but not likely well versed in Hebrew scriptures were able to read the signs, to recognize the import of this humble birth, precisely because Jesus came for all of creation. Yes, he was the fulfillment of the prophecies, the one the people of Israel longed for, but he was more than that. He was the one who would usher in God’s kingdom welcoming everyone—Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old, the poor, the outcast, the sinner. No one was out of the reach of this manifestation of God’s love for God’s creation. When the magi prostrate themselves before the baby Jesus they may not understand what his life will be about, but they do understand that his kingdom includes them. And we understand that it includes all of us as well.
This must have been an important message for the early church to hear, a church that was still struggling to grasp what it all meant, a church in Matthew’s world at least, made up primarily of Jews. Yes, this story confirms, yes, Jesus is the one to whom all the prophecies point; yes, he is the one you’ve waited for. But not just you, house of Israel. Jesus is the one for whom all creation has been straining. He is the one who had come to include ALL into God’s kingdom.
That’s a message we can take to heart as well. We hear it differently to be sure in a world in which Christianity has been dominant for centuries. But even in such a world we struggle with matters of inclusion. We try to define who is in and who is out. We set up rules and dogma and doctrine and we become legalistic about using them. The visit of the magi can remind us, just as it reminded Matthew’s original audience, that God’s kingdom is for all of us. It cannot be restricted. It cannot be bound by human terms. It is God’s kingdom. And just as God chose the unlikely vehicle of a child born in humble surroundings to usher in that kingdom, and the unlikely messengers of magi from the east to herald his coming, so too may God come to us, revealed in unexpected way, at unexpected times.
And that is the second lesson of the magi. They knew of Jesus’ birth because they read the signs, they were open to new revelations, to new insights. It’s so easy for us to become fixated, to focus ourselves narrowly on one vision, one goal. However admirable that may be at times, we also run the very real risk of missing wonderful things around us. The magi remind us to be watchful, to be aware, and to be open to new possibilities—possibilities of seeing God in new ways, in unanticipated places, possibilities of experiencing God’s love in our lives anew.
And so on this Feast of the Epiphany, this 12th day of Christmas I hope that we might take the story of the magi to heart. I hope that like the magi we might be watchful for signs of God’s presence and be open to encountering God in new and unexpected ways. And as this Christmas season draws to a close, I hope that we, like the magi, might help make God’s presence and God’s boundless love for all of creation manifest in the world.