The Feast of the Epiphany
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
The story we just heard, Matthew’s Gospel, is one of the most beloved stories in the Christian tradition; one that has been immortalized by authors, artists, and musicians. Poets like Yeats have put the visit of the wise men to verse and Longfellow named them: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. There are literally hundreds of art masterpieces that depict the scene described in today’s Gospel. James Taylor wrote a song about the magi’s journey and then there is Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors.
The surprise is that for centuries so much has been made of a story about which we have so little information and even less detail. We refer to these after Christmas visitors at the Manger as the “Magi” or “Three Kings” yet Matthew never speaks of them as royalty nor specifies how many there were nor does he tell us exactly where in the East they came from. We don’t know how long it took them to get to Bethlehem and—while we picture them adoring a baby in the manger—it’s possible that Jesus was already a toddler by the time they arrived.
This is the kind of story where the facts really don’t matter and, in spite of the absence of information Matthew provides, there is deep meaning in the passage we are given on this first Sunday we worship in the New Year for this is one of the most ancient feasts, tracing its origin to third century Egypt. Epiphany, a word that means “revelation” actually pre-dates the feast of Christmas and was, in fact, originally a dual celebration of the birth of Jesus and his manifestation to the world as Son of God. It is sometimes referred to as “Little Christmas.”
Matthew’s story is full of wonderful images like a star and wise men which have their prototypes in Old Testament passages. In the first lesson, Isaiah presents the promise made to the Israelites after the exile. They returned to a land that was desolate and impoverished. The task of rebuilding was monumental. It was slow and difficult. In this setting of discouragement, the epiphany of God's active presence in these historical events is shown forth. This presence is symbolized by the dawning of light and it is this imagery that influenced Matthew's account of the Magi and the star.
What is intriguing about this story is the particulars we assume to be true yet are not mentioned at all in the text. We typically think of the “Three Wise Men,” yet Matthew never put a number into the story. There may have been many more of them. Scholars tell us that they were magi—that is magicians—and were not only involved with watching stars but in making astrological predictions, reading omens, maybe even telling fortunes. Some think the gifts they brought were things they used in their incantations. They were well read and well-bred but they were not Jews, had no affiliation with that religion, dealt in alchemy and magic, and may well have been agnostic—or just very curious pagans.
Here in the earliest chapters of Matthew’s Gospel we have a profound example of God’s openness to the far-flung and unlikely, God’s radical invitation and grace extended to the outsider and the non-believer.
What matters about this wonderful tale is not how many wise men or women there were or what gifts they brought with them or what country they came from. What matters is how the story can come to life in us and inform our understanding of God’s love for us—to bring us an epiphany.
Today we look back on the journey of the wise men, a journey made long, long ago, and we also look forward to the New Year and a new chapter in our life together as a faith community called to be God’s healing and reconciling presence in the world. It presents the opportunity to ask ourselves this wonderful but provocative question: What star will we choose to follow in this New Year? What dream, what vision, what hope will guide us; what adventure will we begin in order to invite and welcome others the way God welcomed these strange magicians more than two thousand years ago? The way God welcomes each of us?
On our 2020 journey will we fight the temptation to allow negative voices within or without discourage us?
Will we take some risks, try on some new ideas and move a bit out of our comfort zone?
Sometimes, like the Magi, we may need to make some changes in our itinerary and find a new path back home.
Here we are, beginning a new year together as God’s people who have received the light and are called to illuminate the darkness in the lives of those who enter our doors—whether they travel afar or live around the corner, whether they come with great faith or serious doubt, whether they were here last week or never before, whether they are baptized or not, whether they come with a smile or in tears—all of us gathered around a table where there is plenty of holy food and drink and room for everyone. The Epiphany story reminds us that God's love and light are for all persons everywhere, of every race, religion, nationality and orientation. That the Herod’s of the world cannot extinguish that love or light because we are all God’s beloved, always searching for another epiphany, always looking for a new revelation about God and God’s dream for us. Always on a journey…together.