My friends, today in a somewhat “official” way we remember the coming of astrologers from the East—those men purported to have studied the stars—the heavens, and in that profession discovered a star so different, so amazing really, that they were willing to follow its light wherever it led. The thinking at that time was that a “new light” in the heavens correlated with an equivalent happening on earth. The actual day on the Church calendar for this feast is January 6th, the 12th day of Christmastide, but in order to celebrate this “manifestation” well, which is what “epiphany” means, the feast usually falls on the first Sunday in the New Year unless that happens to be January 1, then other feasts take precedence, Marian feasts and days of peace.
In faith, in relation to the words of prophets of old that a messiah would come, would be born of a virgin, would be One who would change the course of everything; we believe that Jesus, our brother is this One who fulfilled the prophecies of old. Not only that, but he tied the heavens above to the earth below in a way so wonderful that indeed those who studied those same heavens would travel for weeks to discover what magnificent event on earth was so clear a response to this great light in the sky.
The coming of the Magi is only recorded in the gospel of Matthew and we can’t be sure of its truth, especially in detail, like whether for instance, there were three kings—astrologers—or more. The number three seems to have come from the fact of the three gifts named, gold, frankincense and myrrh—one gift in the hands of each king.
We might wonder why these gifts were given—what was their significance. Because there seems to have been a correlation between a great “showing” in the heavens and a likewise great “showing” on earth, as mentioned earlier, it is clear that these men who were of some import themselves, saw the birth of Jesus as the birth of a king and the gifts given signified that. These gifts were valuable; gold as a precious metal, then and now, frankincense as a perfume or incense and myrrh as an anointing oil. We are told that these same three items were apparently among the gifts that ancient kings offered to the god, Apollo.
In this story, as in much that we read in the pages of the Bible; we realize that the stories aren’t meant to be taken literally, that almost always, something greater, is afoot. In this case, as mentioned already, “epiphany” means “manifestation”—a showing forth. The coming of those interested, the Magi, of those encouraged to “go and see,” the shepherds, this wonderful event that had taken place in Bethlehem does not need to be word-for-word, correct—the greater message that we need to take away is that people did, come to see, were encouraged “to go and see” and for each, there was no doubt, a bit different manifestation. God works in each of our lives in different ways. Our God looks at who we are, where we are in our life’s journey, what has happened along that journey, and then speaks to us in ways that we can understand. Our God also challenges us to get beyond our own experiences to see the experiences of others.
In the case of the Magi, possible kings and those who had studied; they came seeking a “king,” and no doubt were troubled in finding “one who would be king” in fact, born in a stable. They may have needed to come to a deeper understanding of purposes in the larger world that were greater than what meets the eye—not in glory, but in poverty. We get the sense from all the extended writings about these astrologers, that they were used by God to instruct the new parents, Mary and Joseph, about coming dangers.
The Scriptures don’t tell us much about the “Three Kings” other than what Matthew, the evangelist has left us—they evidently showed up at the first Christmas, went back home and were never heard from again. Those who have done more study on these matters tell us that the Magi went home, shared the story of Jesus, wherever home was, and that they were later baptized by the apostle Thomas who was a missionary to India.
So my friends, what does all this mean for us today? Why celebrate a day that remembers the coming of well-to-do strangers? Much as our brother Jesus did in his earthly life among us, telling us, showing us manifestations of a God bigger than what we could see at face value; the coming of these wise ones from the East then, and now (think refugees) are ways that our God can show us more.
The Magi found something, Someone in Bethlehem different than they thought they would find. The real manifestation for them was that God came to earth in the form of the poorest among us so that our eyes would be opened to go into our world and find God too in the poorest to the richest, but never to forget the poorest. Not in glory, but in poverty. It is good to remember who it was who was told of the baby in Bethlehem—the shepherds—the poor, not King Herod or the powers-that-be in Bethlehem.
My friends, the message we must take away from this feast, and the end of the 12 days of Christmas on January 6th is that the message of love which is Christmas is for all days, for all people, not just the twelve we set aside to officially celebrate this winter-time-here, season of joy. This is Paul’s message to us today in his letter to the Ephesians.
Christmas is about the miracle born in a stable over 2,000 years ago. Jesus is sign and symbol of the miracle that each person born is and he called attention to that in choosing to be one-of-us, not in glory, but in poverty to raise each of us to the greatness that we are called to be. Christmas time has only worked its magic on us if we in fact allow the love of that first manifestation of love to be manifested each day through our lives. Teilhard de Chardin said it this way: “A universal love is not only psychologically possible; it is the only complete and final way in which we are able to love.”
So, you see, it doesn’t really matter, how many kings came, whether in fact they came at all—what matters, as always, is the greater message—love was manifested in Jesus of Nazareth as a poor baby in a stable and we then must manifest that same love as we meet our world, each and every day of our lives!
So today, as we begin a new year in our world and Church, even though there is much that still needs our care, and we can all name the issues, let us carry away two pieces of wisdom—first from Meister Eckhart:
“Only [the one] to whom God is present in everything and who employs reason in the highest degree and has enjoyment in it knows anything of true peace…” –this bit to challenge us in this new year and finally, to give us hope, words from the Desiderata:
“You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars…whether or not it’s clear to you…the Universe is unfolding as it should…it still is a beautiful world.” Amen? Amen!