The season of Ephiphany, which follows Christmas brings to light, the meaning and significance of Jesusâ€™ birth.
The word Epiphany means to show forth, or to make manifest. Epiphany begins with the visit of the wise ones from the east, who contrary to many nativity scenes we have seen, and to a lot of Christmas carol theology written 1,800 years later, could not possibly have arrived the night of the birth. The only place we ever hear of these Wise Ones from the East is in Matthewâ€™s gospel, a story with no mention of the shepherdâ€™s visit or indeed of a manger birth. The Epiphany season in bringing to light the power of Jesusâ€™ birth, does not allow us to leave the infant in the crib, cuddly and cute to be romanticized and unthreatening. This baby is born into the midst of violent power in the Roman Empire. And he grows up to have disturbing, quite revolutionary ideas which often turn upside down our way of thinking and perceiving.
As Matthew tells the birth story, Jesus, right from the start, refuses to be locked inside a rigid belief system. There are no shepherds in Matthewâ€™s story but the visitors who came were outsiders too. They were mystics, stargazers, astrologers, probably Zoroastrian priests from modern-day Iraq.
Everything about the story of this journey of the Wise Ones provides rich material for reflecting on our own faith journey. It is a story about what guides you when change comes to your life. It is a story about journey, about a search for meaning. It is about wisdom and where wisdom comes from. It is a story about conversion; about changing and going in another direction when needed. And it is a story about resistant survival in the face of oppressive empire.
The magi were seekers, scholars, questioners. They wanted to know truth even if it came from an unexpected source. They patiently sought wisdom and truth in the night, seeking meaning in the shafts of starlight piercing through the dark places–attentive to the glimmers that break through in patterns that revealed meaning.
We have no idea whether they were wealthy or not, had families or not, but we know that they were prepared to leave behind what is familiar to journey into the unknown, to follow Godâ€™s calling. They persevered through complicated preparations and an arduous journey.
They were people who did not simply settle for things as they were–thinking that all truth and meaning had already been revealed. Rather they were prepared to set out on a fresh search; and then, when what is found on the first try turns out to be deceiving and unreliable; they were willing to begin again. They stuck to their vision, to the star that has been guiding them; and followed it to its true end.
Initially, they went to the obvious place looking for the One God was sending–to the palace of Herod, the king of the nation. Initially, they were not looking for a whole different kind of power. They brought gifts fit for an earthly king.
But they had true wisdom to see through the false power of Herod. They recognized that they were being co-opted into the death-making plot of a jealous frightened King; and they extricated themselves to begin again.
And just because they had made a mistake, and things did not turn out exactly as they expected, they were not deterred or shaken from searching for the true divine for they know the Holy IS to be found. They allowed themselves to be changed; to see in a new way–because they were following the light of the star. They persevered and were transformed because of it. This too is wisdom.
Imagine their shock to discover where the star actually led them. When they saw the child, they had to look beyond the obvious, beyond the child born to poor unimportant parents, in a small insignificant town, to see the One they sought, and then they show themselves not only as wise, but great as well as they bend their knees in praise, and wonder.
Having experienced the new birth, they showed their wisdom again when they paid attention to a dream which told them not to return to Herod, but to return by a different route.
There is a lot of wisdom in searching for new life, and for signs of new birth in an age that had become as hardened to death and despair. How much courage, and wisdom it took for them to see the child, the new life, the new hope, the promise of possibility God labours to bring forth in the womb of such a world. One had to be truly wise to discern the in breaking of God in such a cynical culture. But it took courage to follow. It still does.
Some questions that this all raises for me in this time:
â€¢ What star, what life-vision, what light draws us onward? As individuals, but also as a congregation? Or have we gotten so battle-scared by life that we do not even believe there are any stars to look for?
â€¢ Where are we looking for signs from God? What will guide us when change comes to us?
â€¢ Are we looking, out to the community beyond ourselves; up to the expanding, opening universe as we look for vision, or are we simply looking downward, limiting our vision to a few square feet around us, and then wondering indignantly why we never see anything interesting, and things never happen to us?
â€¢ Another question is about discernment. How do we choose among the many stars for the one that leads with Godâ€™s intention for us? And how do we discern the false seductive paths that seem at first glance to hold the answers? How do we discern where we are being co-opted by false power?
May God lead us and guide us with true wisdom in all our paths. And may we have the courage to follow.
[Isaiah 60:1-6] Isaiah speaks to the heart of the people in exile in Babylon, telling them of light that is coming into their darkness, and promising a time of gathering and homecoming.
[Matthew 2:1-21, in sections]
For many of us in the Protestant tradition, the season of Epiphany, which begins on the sixth of January, is not very familiar. The word Epiphany means revealing–or bringing into the light so that it can be seen. In Eastern Christianity Epiphany is by far the most important feast of the Nativity and is associated with the revealing of God through the meaning of the Christ event-shown to have far-reaching, even cosmic significance. It is associated with light.
The light of the Star which tradition tells us led the wise ones from the East to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem, allowed them to recognize the small child as a gift of God.
On Epiphany Sunday we hear the story of the Wise Ones who came from afar to seek the One who was to be born. The star, the light which led them is a central image during the season of Epiphany.