Although it actually falls on January 6, we’re marking tonight as the Feast of the Epiphany. With its story of the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus, it effectively draws to a close our Christmas celebrations. Next Sunday’s gospel reading will tell of Jesus’ baptism by John at the River Jordan, and while that is also a kind of birth story—it includes the divine proclamation, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’—tonight’s reading gives us one final glimpse of Jesus as a child.
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The tradition of marking Epiphany as a feast day separate from Christmas is an ancient one, which recognizes that the narrative from Matthew is quite distinct from that in Luke. These travelers have gone a good distance from when they first sighted the star, and when they finally do arrive in Bethlehem they find the baby and his mother not in a stable, but staying in a house. Apparently some time has passed, in other words, which we reflect in telling this story here in early January.
The word epiphany is from the Greek epiphaneia, which means an “appearing” or “manifestation,” and it usually implies that a light bulb has suddenly clicked on. Now I see… Think of it as being the ancient Greek equivalent of a “eureka” moment, though admittedly a more elegant and evocative equivalent. I mean honestly, “the feast of the eureka” doesn’t have quite the same poetic grip, does it? Yet in some real sense, that is precisely Matthew’s focus.
These seekers are identified as “wise men” in most English translations, but the original Greek is “magi”, which can mean astrologers, dream interpreters, or even wonder-workers. These magi are star-watchers and very clearly outsiders, for although they have set out on their journey to seek “the child who has been born king of the Jews,” they go first to the royal city of Jerusalem. This is not an illogical move to make if you’re looking for a royal child, of course, unless you know the Jewish tradition that the true heir of King David is to be born in Bethlehem. Their star watching could only take them so far, in other words, and then they needed the Jewish scriptures to take them the next step.
Set back on the road to make that last short leg of their journey, they again behold the star hovering in the sky. And while Bethlehem is only seven kilometers from Jerusalem, it is in so many ways worlds away from what they might have expected. Not a palace with a baby attended by servants, but a simple home where a young peasant woman is caring for her baby. And yet, Matthew tells us, “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” Whatever expectations they might have had when their journey began, here in this home the sight of that mother and child drops them to their knees. And these royal gifts that Matthew says they have brought with them—gifts that would have had a natural place in Herod’s palace—are offered to the baby. One can only imagine the look on the faces of the young parents…
Well the story will go on to get rather more complicated, with Herod flying into a rage and sending his death squads in to Bethlehem to slaughter all of the male children under the age of two. He’ll do anything to preserve his power. Anything. But on Epiphany we stop short of that part of the story, and focus instead on the strange eureka moment experienced by these gentile astrologers. By training the lens of his camera on these characters, Matthew is anticipating the very thing with which he will end his gospel, namely that what this Jesus brings is meant not only for Israel, but for “the nations.” (Matt. 28:19) The magi come from a different culture and a different religious tradition, and are informed by a very different set of assumptions and beliefs, yet the child is born for them too.
And for us. We come from a very different time, a very different culture, and our world-view is informed by a very different set of assumptions and beliefs, yet this child comes for us too. I like how N.T. Wright puts it: “Think about what it means for Jesus to be the true king of the Jews. And then—come to him, by whatever route you can, and with the best gifts you can find.”
And here on this feast day when we tell a story of how a surprising new light was cast into the lives of these magi, and on which we dare to proclaim that such light is still cast into the lives of we who live two millennia later—cast sometimes in surprising and even disruptive ways—we are going to bear witness to another kind of new beginning. Dave Newsom and Judith Friesen are about to enter into a covenant of marriage, by each giving their consent to the other, exchanging solemn vows, and giving and receiving rings. That they have chosen to do this in the context of our Sunday liturgy reflects their desire to set their marriage in the context of worship and Christian community. That they do this on a liturgical feast night that celebrates an eye-opening, life-changing eureka epiphany? Well, isn’t that a grand framework for setting out on a marriage? Of course just as the magi would have needed to sort out what life was going to be like after they’d knelt before the child Jesus, Dave and Judith are going to have to do some sorting out of what it will mean to live together under this covenant of marriage. Anyone who is married will tell you that some of that sorting will take some serious work—that not every day will be a light-filled eureka day—but that is your starting point here tonight. And as we all stand with you to bear witness to this new beginning, you need to know that you are not going to have to make a go of it all on your own.