As you might know, Christmas is a collection of 12 feast days beginning with Christmas day. Why many in the church celebrate the eve and day of Christmas, and not the season, is not clear. Perhaps this mindset is rooted in the Reformation or simply due to convenience. The connection between the Incarnation and the 12 days after is the revelation of wise men from the East. This revelation is called Epiphany, or the unveiling of God in the flesh. It’s an astonishing account that these foreign seekers knew enough to look up and use Scripture to analyze the skies. Plus, it’s a big jump to realize God is working in the world to the truth that God has come in human form to save all people. Though they didn’t understand all the theology, we know from Matthew that the wise men came to worship the baby born “king of the Jews,” following the star to Bethlehem, with Micah 5:2 as their guiding verse.
Let Us Be Magi: Lessons for Epiphany
What can we learn from the wise men? How can we teach the importance of their journey to Judea? Here are some points to consider in your planning and study of Epiphany.
The foreigner made friend
Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar are the traditional names given to the three wisemen. The eastern reference is probably Persia, and, more specifically, the Babylonian area (or modern day Iraq). Remember Daniel? He did not return to Israel to rebuild Jerusalem, but he stayed in Babylon, and, from what we know of his life, he remained faithful, adding to the Hebrew Scriptures he knew. That said, we should note that tradition from the fourth century identifies Caspar from India, Melchior from Persia, and Balthazar from Babylon. Wherever they came from and however many actually arrived on Jesus’ doorstep, the importance is the foreigner is made friend to the king of kings (Exodus 22:21), the magicians of kings are now the magicians of the King, seeing a whole new magic that day in Bethlehem.
The Magi were consuls to kings and not really kings themselves. They studied books and astrology, providing advice into the mysteries of life. It’s where we get our word magic. The ones who came to Bethlehem were probably believers in Zoroastrianism, the faith that believes in co-equal powers of good and evil that Cyrus the Great famously adopted. Their status and their beliefs are both tributes to Emmanuel reshaping the world. All knowledge is found in the Word made flesh. No longer would God be silent. Now, from the depths of a 400-year void, He speaks and wise men open up to a new wisdom now fulfilled. The lesson is about humility. Let us have eyes to keep seeing and ears to keep hearing. May we never syphon off the revelation of God because we think we know too much.
The importance of the skies
Numbers 24:17 says, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Judah; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” Perhaps this is the reference used to interpret the importance of the low hanging star. Some think it was Jupiter that dropped lower than normal since the Romans and Babylonians considered it the king of all planets. Psalm 147:4 says, “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.” These astrologer wise guys connected the dots of Scripture to the signs in God’s natural world! What a lesson for us. How often do we heed what Joel 2:30 (quoted in Acts 2:19) says: “I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth below”? It’s also interesting that Jesus says of himself, “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Rev 22:16).
Bring your gifts
Origen tells us, “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” Are we thoughtful about the gifts we bring to Jesus? Many times, our highest good is financial stability and we strive to be responsible and diligent about “making a living.” We know this isn’t bad in and of itself, but it can fester into greed and complacency. Our lives are purposed to be living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. That’s our reasonable service and our true and proper worship (Romans 12:1). The wise men demonstrate giving as sacrificial and on purpose. It doesn’t just happen.
Walking out in faith
The hymn “We Three Kings” notes that the kings traveled afar, “following onward star.” However, if that were altogether the case, why did they inquire about the king of the Jews from Herod? They may have made an assumption that a king would be found in a palace. The prophecy wasn’t clear about the house or exact circumstances. They knew about Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-2), a virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14) and a descendent of King David (Jeremiah 23:5). They had to walk in with faith to complete their pilgrimage. For all we know, when they head into Herod’s court, the star is gone. Herod seems on edge and they are certainly exhausted. What do they do? Will the star reappear? Do they go home? They have faith enough to look up again and find where the Holy family is staying, whether Bethlehem or Nazareth at the time, we don’t know. How often are we struggling down a path we know God has ordained. Do we take our struggles and lack of instructions as excuses for retreat? Do we continue in prayerful steps forward? Let our motivation be to follow Jesus wherever he leads, backwards or forwards, so that we, “may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3: 18-19).
God speaks through a dream and they listen
At the end of Matthew’s account of the wise men, they have a dream not to return to Herod and provide the news about Jesus. They obey the dream and go another way home. Their faithfulness puts into place a number of events. First, Herod is furious and orders the killing of Jewish toddlers two years and younger in Bethlehem. Second, Joseph has a dream to leave the area and travel to Egypt until Herod dies. Herod’s reaction is awful and mimics the travesty of Moses’ infancy. The journey to Egypt also connects us to the story of Israel and the Exodus. How redemptive it is to imagine Jesus wading in the waters of the Nile River! Jesus is the Messiah come to usher in a new exodus to a new promised land, erasing the stain of sin forever. The wisemen are simply faithful through dreams and all other avenues by which God might be speaking. They don’t realize the sequence of events, but God uses their faithfulness as a hinge to open up more of His story to His people. Let us live lives worthy of the same high calling.
Epiphany means revelation. Let’s use this time, this moment, to celebrate and learn from the pilgrims who traveled from afar to uncover the Truth of God made flesh. We don’t know what happens to the wise men when they return home. One legend tells of their full conversion to Christianity when one of the apostles arrives in Persia. Another story talks about their martyrdom since they never wavered in faith from that day in Bethlehem until their deaths. Let us likewise never tire of the Gospel story. Let us never get over the Incarnation or explain it into something palatable to modernity. Let us never be smug about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let us be magi instead, believing in the magic, in the great magician, in the grand miracle of God made flesh to atone for our sin.