Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, the appearance of the wise men to the Holy Family, bringing them gifts from far away. It is a familiar story, and one often added to church Christmas pageants, although some churches will stretch it out and present that portion of the nativity play on the Sunday closest to January 6.
The creche is usually in its place although other trappings of Christmas ornamentation may be gone. The figures of the kings have frequently been placed some distance away from the creche, and every day or every Sunday they are moved closer until on January 6 they appear at the manger to offer their gifts.
Some things bring questions to my mind, such as how many magi were there? The Bible story doesn’t specify, and, after all, how important is it? We are told that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh, three gifts but not necessarily how many presenters there were.
Another thing is that since these magi, wise men, kings, or astrologers came from far away, did they show up between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day or even a day or two later? Maybe as much as a year or so? Could it have been that they found the Holy Family somewhere else other than Bethlehem? Does that really matter either? Probably not.
Were they kings? The term often used for them is magi. There often called wise men in some Christian traditions. There also referred to as kings, which may or may not have been the proper term, but their strange and exotic appearance would undoubtedly give the locals an idea that these were royal personages. Also, we don’t know how many retainers and companions and the like that came with the magi. It could have been quite a caravan, which would further instill in the minds of the locals that these were kings. Most probably they were astrologers who read stars and who interpreted the events of the future through their readings. However it was, over the centuries we have ended up with three kings following a celestial event that was very unusual and deserved investigation.
We are told that on their journey to the Holy Family, they stopped at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem to ask where they could find the child who was born King of the Jews. Herod would hardly have liked hearing about that since he considered himself King with the approval of the Romans, and so he would have questioned them about how they had come to Jerusalem and how they had known of this birth that Herod was unaware of. The magi told of a star that they had been following and then Herod decided to be cagey.
“Tell me where to find him,” said Herod. “I would like to come and worship him.”
The Kings resumed their journey and ended up with the Holy Family. Having accomplished their task, they were warned by an angel to go another way back home because Herod wanted to kill the boy. Being wise men, they took the word of the angel and never returned to Jerusalem.
We know what happens after the kings departed because we see the story of Herod’s command for the extermination of all Jewish boy children under the age of two years. That surely should get rid of the problem Herod had with a potential rival. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fled to Egypt, and undoubtedly the gold, frankincense, and myrrh help them along the way. Now whether that part happened within a few days of the magi’s departure or months or maybe a year later, we don’t know. We merely recognize that there was a tragic result of the wise men asking directions.
Epiphany is also a season that leads up to Ash Wednesday and Lent. I love the word epiphany because it has a meaning over and above a specific day that is part of the Christian calendar.
An epiphany is one of those moments that make you want to go “Wow!” It is a lightbulb moment, one of those times when something suddenly shifts in the thinking, and a new understanding comes in for inspection. It’s an amazing moment and one that encourages us to see the world in new ways.
I can’t plan an epiphany, but I learned that they could happen at any time, anywhere, and about almost anything. It’s a joyful moment, and it’s a discovery that changes my perceptions.
Just as the wise men had their epiphany when they saw the star and then followed it to the baby Jesus, it was a change in their thinking. I like to look for these little flashes during the Epiphany season, but I find they come when they come, not when they are demanded or even expected. It can be as simple as looking at a poor person pushing a grocery cart full of boxes and tatters of clothing and blankets on the city streets and realizing that could be Jesus. It’s as simple as, “Why didn’t I think of that before?” I probably didn’t think of it because the situation wasn’t ready or right for me to have that shift in the way I saw things.
At any rate, I’m looking forward to this Epiphany season, not expecting any great flashes of light, but instead being alert to some new thought or some new insight that will make me see something in a new way.
I invite you to experience small epiphanies this season. Be open, because at some time, when least expected, that little lightbulb will come on. Just be awake and aware.
- For our Orthodox brothers and sisters, Blessed Christmas to you!
Image: Adoration of the Magi – bas relief by Flaxman, John (1755-1826), in Yale Center for British Arts. Found at Wikimedia Commons
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.