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. – Matthew 2:1-12
When we talk about having an epiphany, we mean having some sudden and unexpected revelation, a realization or manifestation of something. When the Church talks about *the* Epiphany, as we do on this particular Sunday, we’re referring specifically to the sudden realization and manifestation of Christ, the Messiah, to the non-Jewish world, represented by the Magi who come from somewhere east of ancient Judea to pay homage to him.
Yes, the story of the Magi is a familiar one. And yes, we mash it up together with the Nativity in most of our home Nativity sets, even though we know that the Magi weren’t there until some time period after Jesus’ birth; we don’t know just when they saw the star or how long it took them to get there. I know some people showcase their home Nativities with the Magi somewhere else in the house, and they move them closer and closer to the rest of the crew assembled around the manger throughout the whole Christmas season, until they finally arrive on the scene on Epiphany; I always thought that was a neat idea.
In any case, we know that in the story, the Magi see a star that, at least in accordance with their own astrological and astronomical interpretations, meant that the Messiah that their neighbors, the Jewish people, had been waiting for had apparently been born, and they set off in the direction of the star – which, based on the story, must have directed them to Jerusalem first, where they meet King Herod and tell him what they’re doing. Of course, since the Jews themselves don’t have any tradition that a star is going to foretell the birth of the Messiah, and more importantly, since Herod isn’t really a particularly devout Jew himself, he doesn’t know what to tell the Magi when they ask where the Messiah is supposed to be born. Once his advisors tell him the messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, the Magi set off again, and the star that had gotten them to Jerusalem seems to have reappeared, or at least adjusted its course, and led them on to Bethlehem.
But by that time, the damage had already been done. Herod had heard that the messiah had been born. And as the scriptures say, when he heard this, he was frightened, and not just him but “all of Jerusalem” along with him. Everyone in Herod’s court and anywhere else in the halls of power in the capital city were suddenly shaking in their boots, because they understood their place in things, and they knew that a Messiah coming would mean the end of their own lives of power, privilege, and comfort. To get some sense of this, imagine if one day, it became known in Washington DC that God had just sent someone into the world, a child who had just been born somewhere, maybe somewhere down around Alexandria, who was going to upset all the established political, military, and social order and set up a new rule – a new kingdom based on God’s understanding of justice and peace. The jig was up; their days were numbered. There would be panic in the streets, just as the story tells us there was in Herod’s court.
Herod and his people were right. The world was about to change forever, even if it wasn’t quite in the way they feared. And it’s certainly true that Christ’s coming into the world continues to offer challenge and opposition to the powers that be in our world today, if the meaning of his coming into the world is truly understood. But setting the big-picture, mactro-level implications aside for a moment, what does the Epiphany – the realization that Christ has come into the world, and the realization of what that means – cause us to think and feel in our own personal lives? I mean, every year, we go through Advent, and then Christmas, and then we turn right around and celebrate New Year’s, with all of its retrospective thoughts about the ups and downs of the past year, and our thoughts and hopes for a better new year to come. We’re standing at the beginning of a new year again, and while we’re here, and we’re thinking about all the promise that the year could bring, how does Christ, and God’s message that Christ brings into the world, factor into that?
Most of us – actually, I suspect, all of us – have something in our lives that we’re uncertain or unclear about. Something that we don’t understand where God is in the situation. Something that we’re trying to sort out; we’re trying to understand where God is leading us, what God is trying to get us to see. We pray for some kind of definitive guidance or revelation about things in our lives, for some kind of epiphany of our own. At least the Magi got a star, even if its meaning was something they could only try to interpret, and it seems to have bounced them from city to city as part of the process, but we don’t even typically seem to get that. I’ve never seen a star with my name on it, and I doubt you have, either. We’re just left stuck, not knowing which way God wants us to go.
But then there are other times, too. Times when God lays out what we’re supposed to do as sure and direct as the second leg of the star’s leading the Magi, moving straight through the sky and stopping directly over the house where Joseph and Mary were staying. Times and situations when what we need isn’t so much an epiphany at all, because we can already see, we already know, what God wants us to do, which way God wants us to go. Times when the right answer is right in front of our faces – but we’re just afraid of its consequences, just as Herod and his bunch were afraid. They didn’t want their established order, their sense of balance, the equilibrium they were familiar with, to be changed. They were afraid of the uncertainty of the situation, and we can be, too, sometimes. The truth is, an epiphany can be a double-edged sword.
Whether God’s speaking into those uncertain parts of our lives in ways that are hard to see, and where the path isn’t clear; or whether it’s perfectly clear to us where God is leading but we’re just afraid of the consequences; the message of the original Epiphany can bring us hope. Because that child was indeed born all those years ago, and grew up to teach us all the immense, unfathomable truth that the God of the universe – the very essence of love, the creative force behind all that exists, and that works through all that exists – is with us, always, in all that we do. God is with us when we get it right, and even when we get it wrong. God is with us when we struggle with seeing the way, and when we struggle with acting on what we already see. The good news for all of us who are truly seeking God’s path in our lives for this coming year, and for all of us who already see the path and just need the faith and courage to walk it, is that we’re never alone in the process, and that God will help us in our efforts. Ultimately, there’s no reason to fear the consequences of aligning our ways more with God’s ways this year. Because truly, what was born in the stable, what was revealed to the Magi, the first Gentiles to be let in on the great secret, was perfect love, and that perfect love came into the world specifically to cast out all fear.
God was with the Magi. And God is with us. Thanks be to God.