A new year has begun, which for some of us may be accompanied by brave resolutions to change some personal practice or add some new discipline… just how many gym memberships have been contemplated over these past days? Perhaps there has been a bit of agonizing over the shape of the credit card bill, and an accompanying commitment to being more careful next year? Soon enough all of these wreaths and garlands will be carefully packed away for another year, but before we move into the depths of a winter that has plenty of snow and cold but none of coloured lights or decorated trees to distract us, one last story for the season. Tonight we mark the Feast of the Epiphany, and tell the story of the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem.
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Why does this piece of the story lag a full twelve days behind the portions told in the Gospel according to Luke? In part it is to acknowledge that Matthew is telling a story different from Luke’s. Here the travelers from the East do not visit a stable with a newborn baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger,” but rather they enter a house where they see “the child with Mary his mother,” which suggests that Matthew has in mind a later arrival. And in terms of theological significance, Matthew is making a different point from Luke. Luke is delighted to tell his readers that it is shepherds who receive an angelic message telling them of the baby’s birth; Matthew is equally delighted to tell his readers about the arrival of Gentile visitors. Not just any Gentiles either, but magi from a distant land whose own particular way of learning has led them to Bethlehem.
This “epiphany” or “showing forth” to the magi would have been a bit of a shock to Matthew’s largely Jewish Christian audience. The scholar of religion Karl Kuhn has suggested that while in their own social and religious context, these magi—astrologers and dream interpreters—would have been regarded as wise, in a Jewish context they were probably regarded as misguided and wrong-headed. Kuhn notes that in “nearly every reference to them in surviving Israelite texts from the time” such astrologers were seen as being foolish for following their astrological system, and so “It is very likely that most recipients of Matthew’s gospel… would not have held the magi in high regard.” “‘What was God up to?’ many of the original recipients of Matthew’s gospel would have asked. ‘Why them?’”
It is a fair question. These magi are hardly likely candidates for an epiphany experience. Their system of learning was sophisticated, but utterly outside of Judaism’s accepted ways of knowledge. They are not covenant people—not children of Abraham and Sarah—and they do not recognize the one God. Their attempts at finding truth and meaning in the movement of the stars and planets was at best dismissed as folly, and at worst seen as akin to magic. Why them?
Yet Matthew is unrelenting in his willingness to tell his story, and to proclaim to his readers that this child’s birth has meaning well beyond the boundaries of Israel. It is for the world.
There is in the very concept of an epiphany a sense of it all being an unexpected gift. Yes, the magi journey long and far, yet when they arrive they are given something they’d not even begun to expect.
Let me give you another epiphany story; one considerably closer to our own time and context. It is hard to think of a Christian thinker from the past 100 years whose influence has been greater than that of C.S. Lewis. Though some in the theological fraternity have dismissed him as a “popularizer”, in recent decades there has been a serious reconsideration of his intellectual importance. In the past year, the theologian Alister McGrath has published two major studies on his life and work, while the addition of Lewis to Westminster Abbey’s “Poet’s Corner” has confirmed his significance as an English literary figure.
Yet as a young scholar, Lewis was as distant from the world of faith and theology as were the Magi from Bethlehem. Coming through a tough childhood in which his mother died while he was still quite young, and surviving the trenches of the First World War, when Lewis was appointed a Fellow of Magdalen College in Oxford in 1925, he was an avowed atheist. Yet as he wrote in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, “All the books were beginning to turn against me.” He loved the work of George MacDonald, of whom he commented that it was “a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity.” “Chesterton had more sense than all the moderns put together,” Lewis wrote, “bating, of course, his Christianity.” All the thinkers who spoke to him believed in God; those who didn’t he found increasingly “thin”.
And it wasn’t just the books that seemed to conspire against him, for increasingly his most substantial friendships were with people who believed in God; Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien. Soon he found his atheism crumbling. “People who are naturally religious,” he wrote, “find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.” It was, in short, a devastating intellectual move for him.
That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.
At this point Lewis was not able to embrace Christianity as such, but simply a theistic belief in God. It wouldn’t be until 1931 that he made that move, and again it was friendships with the likes of Tolkien and Dyson that were key. It was late into the night—3am on a Sunday morning, in fact—that Lewis found himself strolling with these two friends on Addison’s Walk in Oxford, deep in conversation about matters faith. It was Tolkien’s embrace of the power of myth that particularly undid him; a view that Lewis would later advocate in his famous essay, “Myth Became Fact”. A day or two later he set out on a daytrip to the zoo with his brother Warnie, of which he wrote: “I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”
There’s no mystical experience, no supernatural revelation, no sign of a teary-eyed altar call, much less of a star shining over Bethlehem. Yet for Lewis this two stage movement from atheism to theism and then from theism to Christianity was no less an epiphany than was the experience of the Magi told by Matthew. Like them, he thought his scholarship would lead him to an expected destination, and like them he found himself surprisingly off course. Matthew gives us no clue as to what the Magi might have ultimately done with that experience—how it changed them or re-formed them in their beliefs and commitments—but it is quite fair to imagine it quite utterly disoriented them, at least for a time. Like Lewis in his discovery that ‘man’s search for God’ was about as safe as the mouse’s search for the cat, and that a conversion in the way in which the world, truth and God are viewed can come with its own kind of painful struggles, I suspect those Magi had some hard work to do.
And much as some of us might long for a clear “star of Bethlehem” sort of epiphany, I find Lewis’s account at least as powerful as that of the Magi, particularly when he points to the role of those deep friendships in drawing him closer to light and faith. In a late night walk in the company of friends or over a pint shared in a pub; in a searching conversation over coffee or a meal; maybe even in something so routine as the exchange of emails; insofar as we are prepared to struggle together in our search for the truth that is Christ, the star of Bethlehem still shines.