Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6; & Eph. 3:1-12
Matthew’s ‘Epiphany’ was not just about God manifesting himself to humanity, it was especially about God manifesting himself to the Other.
Several years ago, our family, living in France, drove down to Spain during the Christmas holiday to visit some friends living outside Madrid. During that visit we experienced El Dia de los Reyes, Three King’s Day. The streets were alive with lights, music, food… and people all waiting for the Reyes Magos (the Wise Men) to come to town and leave behind gifts on the eve of Epiphany, January 6th.
Epiphany according to the Christian Calendar marks the visit of the Magi, the Wise Men, or the Three Kings. It is taken from Matthew 5, and is not found in the other 3 Gospels. The Greek word Epiphaneai, means manifestation or revelation. Our modern use, “I’ve had an epiphany” comes directly from the religious use. But Matthew intended to give his audience more of an epiphany than we may realize.
Mathew’s Gospel was written to a Jewish Audience and one of his main messages was that God was manifesting himself to the gentiles, or non-Jewish believers in Jesus. The story of the Magi was the ultimate introduction to a gospel written to Jewish believers detailing how God was revealing his light to the gentiles, and not just to the Jews.
Who were the Magi?
Mathew’s account of the Magi places the holy family in Bethlehem some time after the birth of Jesus. Jesus was likely around 2 years old by the time these “Wise men” came from the (farther) East.
We don’t know how many came, maybe 3, maybe 12, or possibly more. I’ve even mused that there may have been Wise Women among the Wise Men. Different traditions give them individual identities. Syrian Christians gave them Persian names and origins, while Chinese Christians believe at least one of them came from China.
The Wise Men were likely Babylonian astrologers or Parthian magi. They were masters of the night sky and they were king finders. As astrology was opposed in the Law, these Wise Men were really pagan. They would have been the ultimate foreigner to those listening to Matthew’s Gospel.
An insecure King
The Magi go first to Jerusalem, seeking help. They knew the stars, but they did not know Jewish Scripture. So they go seeking experts in what the Jewish prophets had said. But the Roman appointed ruler of the Jewish province, Herod, was the King of the Jews, and he news got to him of their search. History tells us that Herod the Great was a remarkable leader but a notoriously afraid of loosing power.
Mathew’s Gospel tells us he arranged a meeting with the chief priests who knew from Scripture that the Jewish Messiah (lit. the Anointed One) would be born in Bethlehem. The Magi critically gave this event a time, “We saw his star rise.” They knew the when… the Jewish experts of the Law knew where.
The Magi left with instructions to return once they found him. They arrived in Bethlehem, guided by the star to the precise dwelling where the holy family was. How exactly the star directs them to the exact place where Jesus is a challenging but fascinating question (perhaps for a future blog).
At Bethlehem, they worshipped Jesus and offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh… customary gifts for a king. When they left, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. The following passage goes on to describe the Slaughter of the Innocents and the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt.
Beyond ‘Wise Men’
To understand Matthew’s message, we must look further than the quaint images of Wise Men that have been embedded into our Christian culture. I have mentioned in a previous post that these travelers were actively seeking, they were open, and they acted on what they concluded was true.
But what is truly remarkable about the quaint Christmas Story is that it is explicitly about the Other, the ‘stranger’ and the foreigner. It is the foreigner who finds the Jewish Anointed One, who comes bearing gifts, who worships Jesus, and who leaves another way to protect God’s plan in action.
No Surprise to Isaiah
God’s People have always struggled with seeing God at work among ‘other people’. But this was no surprise to Isaiah, who challenged God’s people in Israel to be a light to the ‘foreigners’.
Isaiah 60:1-6 prefigures the visit of the Magi.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
The Old Testament image of Messiah, was a light that would shine among the nations.
No surprise to Paul
The story of the Magi was not a surprise to the converted Paul either, the ‘Apostle to the Gentiles.’ Paul was the architype cross-cultural missionary… a leader with a Jewish background, Roman citizenship, who worked particularly for the integration of the non-Jewish believers into a culturally Jewish Jesus movement. For Paul, the integration of Jews and Gentiles was at the very heart of the Gospel.
In Ephesians 3 Paul describes this vision of an ethnically diverse body of Christ…
4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
If we are not careful, we miss how radical Paul’s message was and how integral the Other was to Paul’s Gospel.
Maybe a Surprise to Us
For this reason, we must read the Christmas Story, and all of the Gospels, with fresh eyes. We must seek to place this story in our own context, personally, as a community, and as participants in a secular society… in our public life and policy.
The Magi represented the outsiders, the foreigners, those who spoke a different language, who had different religious backgrounds. But they also came with openness, seeking God, bringing gifts and ultimately protecting the precious light of God in Jesus.
We must wake up our sensitivity and compassion for those who are different than us. And we must quiet our prejudices and fear, welcoming the stranger and accepting the gifts they bring. Their perspective and experiences may indeed hold keys for us to better understand God’s story as we have understood it.
This is what should challenge us about the story of the Magi, just as it did its initial audience.
It may just be that the Gospel of Jesus is as much about race, ethnicity, and the foreigner as it is about our own salvation.
When we read the Gospel with Other eyes, we may just have an Epiphany. We may hear the call of Isaiah, “Arise People of God, let your light shine for all the nations to see!”
May God help us to repent, to change, to become the light he calls us to be.