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 ho has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:1-2, NRSV)
Christmas is over–all twelve days of it. The wise men from the East have the fateful conversations with Herod, find the holy family (note how in Matthew, they’ve at least found a house?), they offer homage and expensive gifts, and then get out of town through a different route.
Epiphany seems to be under-valued in the western Christian traditions at least. Most churches I’ve attended have a bit of a perfunctory service (lightly attended at best), a final carol-sing, and, in one where I was really lucky, the greens that had adorned the nave were hauled out into the parking lot and burned. Then onto a variable-length season between Christmas and Easter (at least in the American churches, that don’t drag Christmas out until Canndlemas), and a breather before Lent, when the planning of liturgies for Holy Week and Easter began.
Epiphany deserves better. I’m not sure I can give it better, because there is so much rich reflective potential that it’s impossible to do it justice in a brief essay. At best, maybe, I can say two things that have been on my mind.
First, the arrival and departure of the wise men is the origin of the church. Many people consider Pentecost to be the “birthday of the Church”–the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus, and had them speaking in languages they had never spoken before, and creating what a lot of onlookers believed to be a drunken spectacle. Definitely a more interesting looking birthday party than a bunch of scholars on camels discussing the meaning of what they had just experienced in an intimate family setting with the one they believed woud be the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews.
But thoughtful discussion and reflection about encounter with the one purported to be the Son of God, who was himself God, and how to make sense of that for themselves and for those to whom they would tell the story–what is more the activity of the church than that? What is more “evangelical” (in the original meaning–“good news”) than people who were willing to share their experience of the divine, apply their wisdom and learning to the attempt to articulate it, and make it accessible to people in distant places and cultures? When we talk about the Great Commission, which closes Matthew’s Gospel (28: 19), can we help but think about the work of these wise men? Should we not be applying the best of our learning and wisdom to making the story of Jesus–God taking human flesh and living and dying as one of us–as the wise men did? These nameless men from unidentified places (just “The East”) were really the first apostles, the original messengers of the news of the Messiah’s birth to the whole world.
Not as interesting as speaking in tongues and creating a spectacle, but it is good from time to time for us to consider that wisdom is also a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, the Epiphany story is the first time that prestige and wealth enter into the Christian drama. And those things play out in two ways. The wise men come with “treasure chests” filled with expensive gifts, expecting to do homage to the newborn king–and, by their subsequent actions, protect this fragile but exceptional infant. Herod fears for his throne, and orders the slaughter of innocent children to protect his position. The wealthy and respectable respond to the holy child so differently: with either generosity and humility, or with fear and violence.
The church, especially as it has accumulated wealth and prestige, has not always used those things as well as it might have. Clearly, there is an admonition to use our material and social advantages generously and humbly, rather than fearfully and violently. The Epiphany story is, in this sense, a warning.
Epiphany is about wisdom–it’s about consciousness of God being with us, available to us. Epiphany requires careful reflection about what we encounter when we come into the presence of the holy.
And I, at least, need to claim Epiphany as a key event in the Christian cycle. Because, really, it’s a wisdom thing.