Reference: Matthew 2:1-15
The ancient celebration of Epiphany is predated only by Easter and Pentecost in the development of the Christian year. It is the first lasting holiday outside of the Paschal cycle, and precedes the baptizing of the pagan winter solstice festival into the Christian Christmas. In the West, the story of the Magi or Wise Men has become the predominant theme, with its implications that the Messiah has come for the Gentiles as well as the House of Israel. In the East, it especially remembers the baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan, a theme the West regards as secondary and bumps to the next Sunday in Epiphany season.
The name in the East is usually “Theophany,” the light of God, making God manifest. “Epiphany” means “the light shining upon,” with a mission theme, to reach all people so they might be enlightened with the truth of Christ. These are not opposite themes. Yet the one emphasizes understanding the meaning of the Messiah’s coming, whereas the other stresses more the idea of reaching out with that message. Ironically, because of the Sunday-only nature of American religious practice, the West now exposes people on an annual basis to the story of Christ’s baptism, whereas the theme of light for the Gentiles is confined to the small group of faithful who will turn out for a weekday Liturgy, except for every seventh year when 6 January falls on a Sunday. Since this year’s observance is on a Sunday, parish pastors will have a rare opportunity to share Epiphany with the entire congregation.
The three Wise Men, or Three Kings, as they are described in some traditions, are generally represented as being exotic foreigners in marvelous garb. One suspects that is pretty close to how they would have been seen in first century Palestine as well. At the same time, no one seems to question their story of following a special star to the place of the Messiah’s birth. Nor do we know what they did with what they had seen when they returned home, probably in what is now modern Iran. We do know that enthusiastic Christian communities were present very early in the Christian era in places now in modern Iran.
Their arrival and inquiries at Herod’s court in Jerusalem also triggered a perhaps predictable political chain of events. It is the stuff of movie or TV thrillers. A council of theologians and experts is summoned by Herod to answer the Wise Men’s question: where can we find the Messiah. The council swiftly and apparently unanimously comes up with the answer (theologians clearly were different back then). The Wise Men set off and successfully locate the young Messiah. In a dramatic scene, they offer both worship and gifts and then ride off home. Meanwhile back in Jerusalem, paranoia and sinister intrigue fester. The last thing an unpopular ruler wants is a Messiah threatening his tenuous grip on power, as it was widely assumed the Messiah would raise an army and throw off the yoke of oppression. Since a search by the authorities (who were not quick-thinking enough to tail the Wise Men) failed to find the Messiah, the ghastly decision was made to murder all the male infants to be sure of killing the Messiah. But they have been thwarted, because Joseph was told by an angel in a dream to flee with his family as refugees to Egypt, which is why the authorities couldn’t find the Messiah.
You can see the drama in this just waiting for the right film maker. Beyond the drama, some universal themes emerge which have much to say to us.
1. Christ is the light of the world (see, for instance, John 1:4-9). At the darkest time of year in the natural cycle, a symbolic beacon shines to guide us, as the star guided the Wise Men. This symbol is partly the idea of enlightenment, that Jesus is, as he himself proclaims (John 14:6), not simply one who announces truth but one who is in his essence truth. It is also partly the idea of guidance, “a lamp unto my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). Again, the light of the star guided the Wise Men to their goal. In Revelation, John notes that darkness will entirely disappear (see 22:5) in the ultimate heavenly creation. Therefore, the Christian journey is one that seeks truth, and cannot be content with any lack of it, whether fake news or a relativistic attitude. The early Church was confronted with the widespread mysteriological cults who believed that exercising the cult functions and worshiping the gods would assure continued protection and help from them and the fulfillment of the natural cycles. Truth and doctrine were secondary. Christianity insisted instead on the truth of soteriology, in crucifixion and resurrection as historical, not mythological, events. The guiding light matters, truth is not pluriform but as unitary as the one God himself is.
2. The Wise Men are, of course, gentiles. Even at the beginning of Jesus’ incarnate life, it is clear that the Messiah has come for all nations, not just Israel. Their worship and offerings are accepted. Careful scholars at the time were not surprised, because the prediction that the Messiah is for all is part of the Old Testament witness (see in Isaiah alone, 2:2-3, 11:10, 56:7, 60:1-3, 66:18-19). Jesus burdens us with few mandates, making all the more important his ultimate charge to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). The discussion at the first ecumenical council, at Jerusalem, settles this. Gentiles can be baptized directly as Christians without first becoming Jews.
It is incumbent on all disciples today and always to act on this mandate. In all centuries, certainly including our own, there are strong forces pushing the light of Christ under ethnic, racial, economic, national and social bushels. But the impetus from God pushes in the other direction. As Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) points out, to be defined as a catholic church, an individual Christian and a parish community must be radically and categorically open to all people and seeking all people. When we confess that which “we have left undone,” the failure of so many to actively be catholic in that meaning surely must rank high on the list.
3. The story ends with the Holy Family fleeing as refugees to Egypt. They certainly have a reasonable and provable fear of the child being murdered if they stay behind. It is a twist, perhaps, to the account which many today would prefer not to notice. The capability of Jesus to grow up and carry out his essential saving ministry hangs on the hospitality of the Egyptians in welcoming these poor and frightened refugees. Jesus immediately at his birth is exposed to the darkness of human nature and the frailty of the life of the poor, whose fate he now shares. Only the kindness of strangers saves him for his later work. I thank God for those nameless Egyptians so long ago who accepted this refugee family. Surely they had no idea of who had arrived among them. Nor do we. Since we have no picture of what Jesus actually looked like, all the faces arriving among us in fear and need, resemble the face of Jesus. That is the point of Matthew 25. There is Christian truth involved in the discussion of the refugee question. Hopefully, that truth will be espoused and not denied by Christians. It is a crucial part of what it means to be catholic.
The light of Christ shines on our path as clearly as it did for the Magi. Blessed are they for following it, not even knowing what lay at the end of the journey. Blessed also today are all those who follow it, knowing what is at the end but needing help in finding the path in ever-encroaching dark times.