At St. Francis Episcopal Church
Today we are celebrating The Epiphany, which actually took place on Friday, January 6. An epiphany is a moment in which we suddenly see something in a new or clear way. It is an insight into the essential meaning of something. The Epiphany story declares the essential meaning of the birth of Jesus, that he is Savior to all humankind and celebrates all those who embrace Jesus with hearts of faith, not just the people of Israel.
This story of the magi who followed an unusually bright star that led them to the Christ child has become an integral part of the story of Jesus’ birth. What we call the Christmas story affirms that the writings in the Bible are divinely inspired and taken together they tell us God’s intentions for humankind. The author of the Gospel of Luke is responsible for shaping a great deal of the Christmas story – the birth of John the Baptizer, the angel’s appearance to Mary, and the beautiful words of Mary, which we call The Magnificat, as she declared her acceptance of the great privilege and responsibility offered to her by God. Luke tells us that there was a census and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem with his betrothed, Mary, who was due to deliver her first child. That event fulfilled the prophecies that the messiah would be born of the house of David, from whom Joseph was descended. Luke then tells of the angel’s song to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus, indicating that he had come for the salvation of the Jewish people. Without Luke we wouldn’t have our beloved Christmas pageants, with angel halos askew on little heads and little shepherds wielding crooks like light sabers!
But there is more to the story. The Gospel of Matthew is the only other narrative which records the birth of Jesus, but it gives us totally different information. Matthew tells the story of the angel appearing to Joseph and how he also accepted the privilege and responsibility he was called to by God. Upon learning of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph initially decided to send her away, which usually indicated an arranged marriage to a much older man. That was much kinder than having her stoned to death, the other option for women in her circumstances. But with the intervention of the angel, Joseph changed his mind, defied the customs of the society he lived in, and took Mary as his wife. He protected her and the baby and raised the child as his own son.
In Matthew the revelation of the Christ child is given to magi from the east that followed a star and felt compelled to find the child whose birth it signified. These magi are Gentiles from distant lands. Yet they somehow recognize the importance of this child and who he will become. Matthew wants the hearers of his gospel to understand that this child, Jesus, is to be Savior and Lord for both the people of Israel and for the Gentiles. The magi offer an example of what it means to welcome the Christ child. They undertake a difficult journey from far away, compelled by an authentic desire to find this newborn king. When they find Jesus, they worship him.
Our story of the magi has evolved to include several elements that are actually not found in the Gospel of Matthew. In Christian tradition, the magi are often regarded as kings, even though there is nothing in Matthew’s gospel to suggest this. Hence the Burger King crowns on the magi in our pageants. In our nativity scenes they are represented by three men dressed in fine clothing and riding on camels. In countries of Hispanic heritage, Epiphany is known as “Three Kings Day” and its importance rivals Christmas Day itself. We commonly say that there are three magi, or wise men, and at various times and places they have even been given several different sets of names, although there is nothing in Matthew’s account which tells us that there were three of them or what their names were. In fact, it is rather strange that the word magi is translated aswise men in the NRSV, because there is nothing in Matthew’s gospel that tells us that they were wise or that they were all men.
Historical evidence indicates that magi were astrologers and interpreters of dreams, especially in eastern cultures that had been influenced by Persian customs. They were not kings themselves, but some of them served as advisors in the courts of kings. It is likely that most such advisors were men, but possible, even probable, that some could have been women. There is historical evidence suggesting that the magi may have been itinerant, traveling in large groups that included their families – like roaming gypsies. Imagine, there might have been a large retinue of travelers from the east – men, women and children – who descended on Bethlehem.
In the first century, some Gentiles would have regarded magi as wise. But we know from nearly every reference to magi in other Hebrew texts that survive from that time that the Israelites considered magi to be fools. So it is very likely that the first hearers of Matthew’s gospel – most of whom were Jewish Christians – would not have held magi in high regard. They would not have heard this story as being about the wisest and most discerning people among the Gentiles coming with great reverence to honor the newborn king. They would have heard it as a strange tale about a bunch of foolish Eastern astrologers who were led by a star to see Jesus. They would have wondered, “Why would God have chosen to reveal the messiah to them?”
From its beginning the Gospel of Matthew teaches us that God chooses the most unexpected people to become followers of Jesus. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus includes women, unheard of in that time. Then the revelation of his birth is to Gentiles who were not held in high regard in Israel. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew there are stories of unlikely and unexpected people who also respond to Jesus with almost immediate trust and devotion. People like us, with all of our strengths and weaknesses.
An epiphany is a moment in which we suddenly see something in a new or clear way. It is an insight into the essential meaning of something. The story of The Epiphany gives us the essential meaning of the birth of Christ. But this is not a one-time only event. We are meant to recognize and experience epiphanies of faith throughout our lives. Several years ago members of what was then known as St. Mark’s Episcopal Church had an important epiphany – that the land you own could be put to good use as a source of fresh produce as well as income to support our local food pantries. Just the fact that there are people who live on the margins of poverty and hunger in the affluent suburbs of Long Island is often a revelation to some people. Thanks to hard work and determination you at St. Francis now have a garden which produces an amazing bounty of food each year. Although the remembering and retelling of stories about the good news of Christ – like the Christmas and Epiphany stories – is critical to our faith, it is just as important that we live out the good news in our communities and the wider world in a way that is both meaningful and relevant. You have fulfilled God’s intentions with your garden.
As we celebrate this Epiphany let us remember that the revelation of Christ to the world is, for us, a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, “Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; the presence of the Lord has shown upon you.” No matter the challenges we face, no matter how deep the darkness may seem to surround us, we only have to “raise our eyes and look about” and we will see the bright light of Christ shining through, opening our hearts and minds to the truth and love of God. Amen.