Today the Church commemorates the Epiphany of the Lord Jesus. An epiphany is a particular kind of revelation, a manifestation of God’s presence in the world. This particular revelation happened in the presence of mysterious visitors from the East, who directed by a celestial portent that appeared in the heavens, found their way to Bethlehem and paid homage to the Lord Jesus, honoring him as one would honor a great king.
The Gospel identifies the mysterious visitors from the East as “magi”- a word from which we get the word “magician”. Popular imagination for centuries has depicted these visitors as kings, and in more recent times, the mysterious visitors have been called “wise men”. I think the best way to think about the magi is that they were what would look very much to us like sorcerers, masters of alchemy and astrology. Their “wisdom” was knowledge of the mysteries of the pagan religions. This makes their presence in the stable of Bethlehem all the more mysterious and memorable.
Popular imagination also recalls the magi as being three in number, but the Gospel never gives a specific number and further, while popular imagination usually depicts the magi as kings who represent the different races, the only detail that the Gospel provides about origins of the magi is that they came from the East. This designation “from the East” likely meant from the lands of the Parthian Empire, what is called Persia, or the country we know today as Iran.
The Gospel tells us that the magi were provoked to set out on their journey because of a mysterious star. What this star actually was has been a matter of speculation for centuries, but whatever it was, it was evidently impressive enough that the magi were willing to undertake a risky and expensive journey to see for themselves what it was all about.
What these mysterious visitors from the East saw in the Child Jesus is the epiphany, the revelation. And what they saw was God become a child.
God become a child. God become flesh. This is the great revelation of Christmas and today’s commemoration of the Epiphany confirms this revelation- the child Jesus is God- God who has accepted a human nature and lived a real human life. That mysterious visitors from the East were drawn to the revelation of the Christ Child is an indication that the revelation of God in Christ is for the whole world, for all people, in all places and at all times. There is nothing about the revelation of God in Christ that is meant to be private. The revelation of God in Christ is always public.
Each generation must meet Christ for the first time. Each generation that knows Christ has it as their mission to introduce him to the next generation. This is the purpose of the Church. The Church is not our private club, but it is the means by which the Lord Jesus makes himself known to the world, and that the world comes to know him. We might have deeply felt experiences of the Lord Jesus, but no personal experience we have of the Lord Jesus is simply meant for us alone- what Lord Jesus reveals is always meant for others.
No one’s relationship with the Lord Jesus is meant to be a secret.
Thus, the Gospel makes this point by having the birth of the Lord Jesus being very much a public event- with Christ’s mother and her husband having to go out from their home to Bethlehem, with angels inviting shepherds to witness for themselves the coming of the Holy Child, and the magi, strangers and foreigners, are also invited to see Christ the Lord. The way of a disciple is always missionary, which can be understood to mean that Christian faith is always lived in a public way and as an invitation to others to know the Lord Jesus. One of the great spiritual masters of the 20th century, a priest by the name of Hans Urs von Balthasar expressed this truth when he remarked “in order to find God, the Christian is placed on the streets of the world”.
There might be religions that are private and spiritualities that are designed for us to keep to ourselves, but not the Christian Faith. Christian Faith is public, and it is when it becomes private that it becomes distorted.
Like the Magi, we must go out, even at great risk, to meet the Lord Jesus and once having met him, go out again into the world, even at great risk, so as to introduce the Lord Jesus to others.
There is one more element of the story of the Lord’s Epiphany that I would like to share.
As I said, popular imagination identifies the magi of the Gospel as three kings, but they were not kings. But there are two kings in the story that we should not overlook.
One of the kings in the story is Herod, who was born in the year 74 BC and likely died in the years immediately after Christ the Lord was born.
Herod was one of the most capable rulers that the Israelites had ever known. He was a savvy politician and master economist. His policies produced wealth that had not been seen by the Israelites since the days of King Solomon. He successfully negotiated a settlement with the Romans that guaranteed the Israelite’s rights to preserve their unique culture and practice their religion. Herod re-built the great temple of Jerusalem, making it one of the wonders of the world. At the height of his power, Caesar Augustus declared that Herod had made the lands of the Israelites one of the great jewels of his empire.
But it was Caesar Augustus who also declared that he would rather have been Herod’s dog than one of his sons.
Herod was successful, yes, but he was also ruthless in his ambition and in his desire to attain and then preserve his power.
As he grew older, his desire to maintain his power became more and more aching and acute. Fearing his family might be plotting against him, he had his wife and several of his sons executed. Beset by fear, he became more and more paranoid about plots against his life and against his power.
This is the situation the magi confronted when they were granted an audience with Herod and inquired as whether or not a child had been born into his household, a new king and successor.
We know that the baby king the Magi seek is not from Herod’s family or born in Herod’s palace, but he is the son of Mary, the Son of God and born homeless and into the straw poverty of a manger.
The news of the magi about a newborn king was not good news to Herod, as he felt his power slipping from his grasp. If no child had been born into his own family, who was this new king that the magi spoke of, a new king who was indicated by portents in the sky and the prophecies of the Scriptures? This all was the stuff of rebellion and revolution to Herod, another plot against him and his dynasty.
Thus Herod connives and schemes, employs his cunning in an attempt to discover the new baby king and kill him.
The Magi foil his plan. The baby king escapes. This sets in motion events that are devastating and horrific. Herod, unable to harm Christ, harms others. Herod, unable to kill the baby king, kills the children of Bethlehem.
Christ the King who became a child is opposed by Herod the king who becomes a killer of children.
It’s chilling. And thus there are two kings in the story (not three), Herod and the Lord Jesus and it is between these two kings that we are compelled to choose. Kings like Herod still lurk in our world, and even in our own life, they preside over all that resists Christ and hates him, their kingdom is all those parts of our own lives where we refuse Christ and say no to him.
And thus there are two epiphanies- two revelations: one is that God in Christ is the world’s true king and the other is that the world’s true king will be opposed by worldly kings like Herod.
And in this regard, those who follow King Jesus, must know, that following King Jesus is not without risk…