Wednesday, January 6, 2016
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. It is the day we remember the arrival of the three wise men (or Magi - magicians) who came from the east following a star to which their magical intuition had led them. They came bearing gifts that have been said represent the Christ - gold for kingship, incense for deity, myrrh foreshadowing his death.
Is this story history or metaphorical storytelling? It is hard to believe that this is a literally true story. A richly appointed retinue of Magi, coming from the East, which would be India or Persia perhaps, passing through a small town like Bethlehem went unnoticed? Just twelve days before the sky was filled with “a heavenly host” that drew the attention of shepherds but not one city official or Roman census taker. All this while people from all over Judea were moving to their homes to be counted for the census.
When I was in Catholic school we were taught that the story was both and that the metaphor was the “epiphany” of the Magi that they had found the new ruler of the Jews. The world outside of Judaism recognized this new ruler. It was, I was taught, a more important holiday for early Christians than Christmas. This epiphany was that the baby they found had come for and was recognized by all people.
Merriam-Webster gives the second meaning of the word epiphany as “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way”. (The first definition is this holiday). This second definition as the origin of the name of this feast causes me to think. This was not an epiphany for these travelers. They set out looking for the new Jewish ruler. It was not a moment of new understanding for them; at least as the story is presented. And they did not convert to Judaism or stick around to become the first Christians. They continued on their path, having found the one sent to be God among us.
So who has had an epiphany?
Earlier in Matthew Joseph has a dream in which he is told to wed Mary; that the son she would bear would be the savior of his people. Who are these people? Of whom might a carpenter like Joseph be most aware? Why the nation of Israel, the Jews all around.
Not mentioned in Matthew, but in Luke is how Mary has been told her child would sit on the throne of David. Again, a ruler of the Jews.
So I think the epiphany here is not something the there travelers have. I think it is Mary and Joseph who have come to a new understanding. This story represents the realization that this child is more than a ruler of the Jews. Mary and Joseph, through their well recounted genealogy, stand in for the nation of Israel. Matthew, whose gospel is aimed at a Jewish audience, is setting the stage for Jewish readers of the Gospel to recognize this child as not just theirs, but that the child is for all mankind.
Emmanuel, God with us, help me remember that You are here among us, within us, working through us. Help me remember most that ‘us’ is ‘all of us’; not just those who follow You through the path set by Jesus; but all whose paths lead to the Justice and Peace that comes from you. Amen.
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