Feast of the EPIPHANY, january 6, 2019
Year C, Feast of the Epiphany: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
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I was reading the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday and the yearly article about Three Kings Day appeared. Especially for many people from Spanish and Eastern European traditions, the Christmas season lasts until today, January 6th, the 12th day of Christmas. It is known as Three Kings’ Day. I recall as a child that my mother, who was baptized in the Byzantine Catholic tradition, would absolutely insist that we keep our Christmas tree up until at least what was referred to as “little” Christmas. The feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of each January was the climax of the Christmas season.
Now, the interesting thing about these traditions, the traditions of kings and magi, is that they have their biblical foundation in today’s gospel story from Matthew. Many of you may have the image of wise men in your mind that was posted on our Facebook page. Wise men on camels walking through the desert. This image is one that has come from centuries of traditions surrounding what we celebrate today as the Feast of the Epiphany.
If we look closely at Matthew’s text it raises some questions about the tradition of wise men on camels and the tradition of three kings.
This is the only one of the gospels to mention the wise men. Contrary to popular perception, Matthew does not speak of three magi, nor does he refer to them as kings. The mention of kings in this reading are limited to King Herod and to the child who has been born king of the Jews.
In the original Greek, the word for “wise men” is “magoi”, which is related to the English word for magic. “Magoi” in Greek meant something more like astrologer, sage or astronomer – maybe even magician or sorcerer. Certainly not three royal kings in the manner in which they are often traditionally presented.
Another thing that isn’t truly clear in the gospel of Matthew is that there are only three wise men. The number three was apparently deduced from the number of gifts, although one early tradition put the number at twelve. There could have been three, twelve or twenty, yet centuries of tradition have handed down to us a remembrance as immortalized in the hymn, “We Three Kings”.
Questions remain about exactly who these wise men were. Were they scholarly ambassadors from distant royal courts? Were they sorcerers or magicians as the Greek word of “magoi” would imply? Were they wisdom figures who studied the heavens and charted the stars? Where was their home?
Frankly, I’m not sure any of the questions as I just put forth are terribly important.
What is important is the role the magi play in the gospel of Matthew in bringing for the news of Jesus Christ to the world. We learn important pieces of information in these twelve verses, really even just the first six verses.
The wise men from the East ask, “where is this child who has been born king of the Jews”. Christ’s identity is clearly established.
Second, we understand that Herod indeed knew that this child, Jesus, was the Messiah, the Christ child.
How did these wise men, these magi, know what they knew? Whatever their sources, it likely wasn’t from sacred texts like our reading form Isaiah; magi gathered their information from the natural phenomena around them. They determined that something was going on from how the stars moved and the heavens changed. I have to say I experienced something of what they might have seen as I came from the mountain today. Driving at 6:00 this morning it was still very dark. When you leave Basye there is not much light. The stars on the horizon were incredibly bright, almost the only illumination present until I got closer to Woodstock as the light of day began to show on the other side of the mountains. Now, I know this isn’t Bethlehem or Jerusalem, but I understand enough to know that stars pretty much keep their relative position.
The wise men were led to Jesus. It’s a pretty wonderful thing that these wise men from the East are the first ones to truly understand and share the good news of the Gospel. Astrologers from a foreign land are the first to acknowledge Jesus as God’s anointed king.
We hear in today’s Gospel the fear that Herod had from the outset a fear of this child because Herod knew exactly who Jesus Christ was. The last verse of the passage relates that the wise men were warned in a dream “not to return to Herod.” The wise men, too, understood who Christ was but their reaction is very different. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They welcome this child, born in a manger, into the world with gifts appropriate for a king.
In a very real sense the wise men are the first witnesses to the saving power of Christ in our world through a path to a manger, a path that is dangerous. It’s one of the reasons that Epiphany is so important. Until the fourth century, Epiphany, which literally means the ‘revelation’ or ‘manifestation’ of Christ, was celebrated as the main feast of Jesus’ birth. Just as Easter marked resurrection, Epiphany marked the revealing or disclosure of Christ’s role. The magi were essential in bringing that news forth into the world.
Today’s lectionary reading ends with one piece of what is a difficult story. It was the wise men’s job to interpret dreams, and their dreams tell them not to trust Herod. They leave Bethlehem by an alternate route. The verse we don’t hear is that Joseph also has a dream and heads south with the child and his mother.
The key to this Gospel is not trying to figure out exactly who the magi were, or how they knew what they knew, but how they reacted to the world around them. They gave this child gold, frankincense and myrrh, all precious things. They rejoiced in the child, Jesus. There was a generosity of spirit among these wise men that Christians today can emulate. A generosity and a wisdom that made them understand how unsafe the world around that child was.
A question for us today is how do we emulate the magi? How do we rejoice in the fact that Jesus Christ has come into the world?
One thing is to understand that today’s Gospel, indeed all the Gospels, proclaims that the way of Herod is not the way of the world. Being cruel to powerless children was efficient for a ruler with no governing values except staying in power, but it has no place in the kingdom of God.
God’s way is the way of welcome to all strangers. Matthew’s wise men welcomed the stranger, the child. Mary and Joseph welcomed these strangers, the magi not from their land and accepted the gifts given in love.
That welcome, that love is God’s way. The king born in Bethlehem was a helpless infant, born of a woman, and protected by loving and courageous parents. Parents who fled their homeland because of the persecution and fear for their safety and the safety of their son.
Our world has perils. The Bible never implies otherwise. In our lesson from Isaiah it says, “for darkness shall over the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” But the very next verse also says, “the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”
The message in today’s Gospel is that God rescues us. God uses the magi to reveal a path to the manger, a path for all people to find God in the world.
God enlightens us to see their light of Jesus – the light of one who lives of life of pure compassion, pure integrity and pure love.
We are called in the story of the Epiphany to live lives of compassion, integrity and generosity for others for the sake of the well-being of this world. We must not fool ourselves into thinking it will be easy – that there will be no danger, or anger, or confusion. But the wise men showed us how generosity can change the world. We are blessed because we can be generous, we can be compassionate, we can live life abundantly.
The wise men rejoiced, and on this Epiphany, we rejoice because Jesus has come into the world where we live. Jesus is here. His light shines! Amen.
 Matthew 2:2, (New Revised Standard Version, “NRSV”)
 Atchmeier, Paul. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent Through Transfiguration. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, Location 7138.
 Matthew 2:2
 Matthew 2:4
 Matthew 2:6
 Matthew 2:11
 Matthew 2:12
 Isaiah 60:2a
 Isaiah 60:2b
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