By Sam Gutierrez
The season of Epiphany begins with the feast of Epiphany on January 6 and ends the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Depending on where Easter falls (it’s a moving holiday) the season of Epiphany can be as short as 4 weeks and as long as 9 weeks. The word Epiphany means “to appear” or “to bring to light”– it’s a season of increasing light and ends with the lights on maximum: Transfiguration Sunday. On the mountain top, Jesus’ glory is revealed and we catch a glimpse of his divine nature – a vision that’s a little too bright for human eyes.
The beginning of Epiphany is framed by three key stories from the life of Jesus: the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the first miracle when Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana.
For this 2021 Epiphany post, I’d like to take a look at the first framing story for Epiphany – the visit of the Magi.
Just recently in the news, there was talk of the “Christmas Star” – a conjoining of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky. In reality, their distance from each other was immense, but their orbits made them appear close together as you looked towards the horizon in the month of December. Some think that a similar astrological “sign” happened around the time Jesus was born.
The Wise men are sometimes referred to as kings or even astrologers. Some have called them Magicians or “Magi,” meaning “Sorcerer.” They came from the East (many think Persia) and were probably wealthy. Mostly likely, they traveled in large “family bands” and their total group far outnumbered the traditional number of “three.”
As strange as it may sound – they looked to the sky and saw something powerful and unmistakable in the alignment of the stars – something that told them that something equally important was happening on earth. This is not new – many cultures throughout history have drawn a strong connection between what happens in cosmology and what happens in human history (just study ancient Egypt). Now that we know so much more about the universe thanks to modern technology, it might be easy to debunk this kind of knowledge. But again – as strange as it might sound, there seems to be some sort of connection between what happens “up there” and “down here.”
We can sometimes get fixated on the gifts, or the star, or even the song “We Three Kings” while missing the point that Matthew is trying to make in telling us the story of these mysterious visitors.
For Matthew, the point is two-fold. First, Jesus is not just a Jewish king. He is the King of the whole earth. Remember, Matthew is primarily writing to a Jewish audience in his gospel. From the very beginning, he wanted to tell his readers that the birth of Jesus is a cosmic event that has comic implications – Jesus fulfills the promises made to Abraham – that through Abraham’s family, God will bless all nations. It’s easy to think that God is only interested in blessing certain tribes – in this case Jewish – but the birth of Jesus is for the non-believing Persians as well. This has tremendous implications for us today. God is not interested in merely blessing Christians – his overflowing grace is for everyone, everywhere. The blessing poured out on you and me is meant to communicate to others that they are blessed too.
Second, God is not bound by Scripture in order to communicate. Not only did God guide the Magi toward the manger via a “star,” but God warned them in a dream to return home using a different route. To these non-Jewish “outsiders,” God used an alternative means to speak - a star and a dream. It seems that God will use whatever means available to communicate his grace. This should give us a good dose of humility – knowing that God can and does work outside the walls of the church (and scripture) to gather folks into his family. It’s true, God does reveal himself in and through Scripture, but God also likes to get creative – recruiting planets and stars and diving into the unconscious dream state to share his promises and grace. Wow.
Epiphany is a rich but unfamiliar and overlooked season. January is considered a cold and dark month – the merriment of the Christmas season is over, the new year has begun, and we’re back at work or in school. Culturally, these weeks are marked by a return to routine.
Liturgically, Epiphany is a season of quiet hope with a watchful eye towards God’s promise to bring wholeness to the entire galaxy in the person of Jesus. It’s also a time of spreading this good news and so we look for little ways to spread hope to those around us. We pray for our friends, neighbors, relatives, children, family members and spouses who don’t know Jesus yet.
We believe that “in him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:4-5