Reflection: Getting Epiphany Right
Dear Beloved Community of St. John’s,
Mostly, we get Epiphany wrong. That’s a shame, because this commemoration has much to teach and inspire us.
Last year, a colleague asked me what was the actual astronomical phenomenon that we read about as the star of the Magi. I did some research and gave him a couple of ideas, but I thought the question was very much beside the point. The star of the Bible story is not about identifying a provable celestial event. Rather, and more important, it is about the light of heaven come down to earth. The light is a proclamation of salvation and redemption. That it moves suggests that the coming of God’s child is something as expansive as the sky over the earth. That is a much bigger deal than an ancient, theoretical star chart.
Also, we don’t know that there were exactly three Magi, we don’t know that one was dark skinned, and we don’t know their names. All of these “facts” are the stuff of later legends and song lyrics. We do definitely know that the Magi did not bump into the shepherds at the stable, even though many of our nativity sets come with shepherds, wise men, sheep, a cow, a donkey, and a camel.
In fact the real narrative of the visitation was more interesting and touching. According to Matthew’s gospel, the Magi entered into the holy family’s home in Bethlehem, where they encountered Mary and Jesus. Many have theorized that because king Herod ordered that all boy children two and younger be killed, that the events of this story of the Magi could have taken place well after Jesus’ birth, when the boy was a toddler. Also, in keeping with the gospel based on the writings of Isaiah, the gifts were gold for kingship, frankincense to represent prayers arising to heaven, and myrrh to anoint the dead.
What I think is sweet and powerful about the actual gospel’s telling of the story, the visit of the Magi was an event centered in the home. Jesus was an inquisitive, active child. His playground and lesson book was anything he could touch. He was learning to talk already. He was on the way to his—and our—destiny.
The various holiday carols about the Wise Men are lovely and traditional. Many of the lyrics we know by heart. Truly, Matthew’s gospel weaves together many threads that have fulsome theological meaning. The real story is about when company comes calling, gifts, and hospitality. We all would have enjoyed being part of that living room scene.