It’s time to put some old myths about this Epiphany feast to rest. We talk about the wise men as if they were kings, come to pay homage to a newborn king that they had foreseen in the stars, but the truth is actually a little bit different. They were, in fact, astronomers, and they didn’t travel alone. Any group of people of any status traveling a long distance would have had a retinue of workers, most likely slaves, who took care of the animals, preparation of meals, and such on a long journey. It is unlikely that they came on Christmas night – the fact that Herod issued his murderous order against all children 2 or younger meant that some time had passed until the magi arrived in Judea. They probably came from Babylon, the place where astronomy reached its highest expression.
Their notation of what was happening in the skies was a surprise to Herod, who didn’t notice anything special happening in the skies. His response was to assemble the Sanhedrin, and to ask them “have you heard of any ‘King of the Jews’ being born? For him, this was a political problem, since he was certainly not a well-liked king himself, as a pawn of the Romans, and he always worried about an uprising against him.
And then the magi left, with instructions from Herod to return and tell him what they found.
When they got to Bethlehem and the child, they were overcome with joy when they saw the star there – most likely because they hadn’t seen it when they were in Jerusalem. Seeing it again confirmed that their understanding of this astronomical occurrence was correct.
And so they found the child and gave their gifts. They were the standard gifts brought on important occasions – they are referred to in both Isaiah and Song of Songs.
So if we take away the romantic understanding of three kings coming to worship another king, arriving on that cold night (which probably was not in December, by the way) hard on the heels of the shepherds, bringing kingly gifts, what are we left with?
Something remarkable. Something that previews what the very end of Matthew’s gospel will announce: this is someone who came for Jews AND Gentiles, for all the nations, not just the home team.
It’s an eye-opener, isn’t it? And isn’t that precisely what we think of when we hear the word “epiphany?” Eye-opener! In Greek, epiphaneia means a manifestation or a revelation. We use the word the same way when we have a sudden “aha” moment, a new idea, the lightbulb going off! There’s a famous picture of Arthur Fry, the inventor of the Post-It note, with one of those ubiquitous yellow notes on his forehead with a lightbulb drawn on it.
And there is certainly an ‘aha’ moment here.
We might want to ask the question “Why does Matthew think that this story is important?” It would make more sense appearing in Luke’s gospel, where the inclusion of non-Jews is taken as a given, but here it is in the midst of Matthew’s very Jewish gospel, which is all about showing how Jesus is the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew prophecies.
But here it is in Matthew, because it is, in fact, the fulfillment of a Jewish prophecy. It not only fulfills Micah 5:2, which says “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days,” it also fulfills Isaiah 66:18 : "And I, because of their actions and their imaginations, am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory."
The magi are the first Gentiles to recognize who this child is. They see it before many of the Jews do. They have their “aha” moment and it teaches us something…
…because it raises the question “are WE open to the ‘aha’ moment? Are we ready to feel the power of this Christ in our lives?”
Sometimes we may feel that these are all stories from long ago, stories that don’t happen now. But what if that weren’t the case? Where might our epiphanies come from? An interaction at the Farmer’s market? A conversation with our child? A smile returned by a homeless man begging on the corner? An unexpected gift from someone we least expected to present it?
Those moments that happen in our lives – and they do happen, don’t they? – are our own epiphanies, our own lightbulbs on the forehead.
And they are something else as well, the most remarkable of gifts. They are the ongoing revelation of the Word made flesh. They are Christ made incarnate, 2013 years after he was born, still fresh, still new, still making us sit up and take notice. There may not be stars or scary kings on a dark cold night, but there is the best of it distilled into what we really need: Aha! He is here, present, moving among us and changing us.