Excerpted from My Soul Magnifies the Lord, an Advent Guide for Lectionary Year C from the North Carolina Council of Churches.
Epiphany celebrates God’s presence with humanity through the person of Jesus Christ. With the birth of this baby, the reign of God breaks through the barriers between God and humanity. Epiphany is observed 12 days after Christmas Day. In some traditions, it is called “Three Kings Day,” acknowledging the scriptural witness of the three gifts brought by three magicians, or wise men.
Welcoming the shepherds and the wise men into their life together, Mary and Joseph encourage the baby’s being revealed to all the world.
The Visit of the Wise Men
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
King Herod was a Jewish king who was allowed to exercise his power by the Roman authorities. He ruled through fear, having put members of his own family to death so they would not challenge his right to the crown. In contrast, the wise men, or magi in the Greek, seek the real king. They respond to their observation of a rising star, recalling Micah 5, which some understood as a prophecy predicting the birth of the Messiah. This “star of Bethlehem” has been described as a natural phenomenon (Origen) and as a miracle (John Chrysostom).
3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
Herod’s position as king is challenged by the birth of this child. Having already murdered family members who threatened his authority, he makes haste to discover the origin of this latest threat, summoning his advisors to lead him to the one called “king of the Jews.”
5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;for from you shall come a rulerwho is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2 combine to bring the prophecy of the birth and the geographic connection with King David to life, indicating the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah.
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
Herod’s nickname was, “the Fox.” He hoped these magi would reveal the whereabouts of the baby to him when they returned. He deceitfully solicited the location claiming that he would go and worship the new king. The fear he holds for the baby’s presence hints at his desire to destroy him as a competitor for the kingship of the Jewish community.
11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The wise men’s entry into “the house” points to a later time than immediately after the birth. The gifts of gold or kingly wealth, frankincense used by priests in the temple, and myrrh, used to anoint the dead point to Jesus’ role as king, priest, and mortality. They also give rise to the tradition of three kings, though there could have been more or less than three. In the same way that Joseph’s dream speaks to him about remaining with Mary and the child, the wise men are warned against returning to Herod in their dreams. Heeding this warning, they journey home a different way.
~Para Drake, NC No Torture Project Coordinator
Back when I was a kid, in Brazil, my mom would never let us put the Christmas decorations away until “Dia de Reis,” the Day of the Kings, January 6. Only then were we allowed to place the final three figures in the nativity scene, positioning them around Jesus for a few hours, talk about their significance, and start dismantling the tree and all the “Christmasy” things we put around the house.
Until I prepared to write this reflection, being from another country, it had escaped me that the Day of the Kings is also called Epiphany. I love the name and find it very appropriate. According to the Merriam-Webster, epiphany means “an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking.” I still keep the same tradition my mom taught me, now with a deeper appreciation for its significance. We wait for the wise men because although the Christmas season with all its busyness has ended and life’s routine is returning, it is still important to mark all the events of the most important story ever told.
Magi were a famous class of astrologers and dream-interpreters that served the Persian King. Astrology at that time was considered the science of its day. These astrologers likely traveled with a significant caravan, motivated by the appearance of the star. Once they got to Jerusalem, the palace was the obvious place to go look for a new king. It was also common for dignitaries to come and congratulate a new ruler. But the King wasn’t in the palace. Since the star was no longer visible, the current king was the person to ask for directions, and his scriptures revealed to them where to find him—in King David’s hometown, Bethlehem. After they left Herod, “The Fox,” the guiding star showed up again! This time it stopped above the right place. The home was probably a simple house, “out the nice part of Bethlehem, through the not-so-nice part of town, into the really-not-nice-at-all part of town, down a little dirt track,” as told by the Jesus Storybook Bible.
Simple . . . and striking. Can you picture this? A long caravan, animals, people in shiny clothes, the Magi in wealthy, extravagant robes . . . kneeling to a toddler, Jesus. Gentiles from a far foreign land, coming to bow down to the new King. In a poor house. Far from banners, flags, and wealth. Just a boy and his mother. Surrounded by astounded wise men, bowing their noble heads to the ground, giving Him great treasures.
Simple . . . and striking to think about the way God chose to become incarnate among us. Even though Jesus was, at that time, a helpless little boy on the poor side of town, wise men worshipped him. Such a powerful picture of the most important and ultimate King of our world. Certainly, he should be in the best house and with the best adornment, but our king is different. He has come to serve, so he comes into a house where people said “Yes” to God’s unorthodox plan. Along with that willingness comes communion with God and the means to see life in a new way.
This reflection ends with the wish that we learn to need not so much stuff and focus more on what is important. May we contemplate how simple and striking, wonderful and important, it is to marvel at the now reachable God. C.S. Lewis said “I believe in Christ, like I believe in the sun—not because I can see it, but by it I can see everything else.”
“Jesus, please do not let me miss the epiphany of your presence in the simple and striking moments of my everyday life, so I can see everything else through you. Amen.”
~Sabrina Visigalli, NC Interfaith Power & Light Intern