Isaiah 60:1-6– Arise! Shine! Your light has come… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… they shall bring gold and frankincense and bring the praise of the Lord.
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14– Give the king your justice, and righteousness to a king’s son. May all kings fall down before him, and nations give him service.
Ephesians 3:1-12 – The mystery made known by revelation: That the Gentiles have now become fellow heirs.
Matthew 2:1-12 – The magi consult with Herod, then visit the child Jesus with his mother Mary. They offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, returning to their country by another road.
Epiphany: Mary’s Baby Shower
Methodist pastor Robb McCoy describes epiphany as the first baby shower: http://fatpastor.me/2013/12/31/epiphany-the-first-baby-shower. This is one angle of vision on the text. Visitors from afar bringing gifts. What gifts do we bring?
Another angle of vision comes into view if we understand the Magi to be Persian astrologers. Yes, there really were Magi. Seen in this light, this is a mission/evangelism text. The thing about the song We Three Kings: they weren’t kings, we don’t know that there were three, and they weren’t from the Orient. More on that below.
Epiphany is one of the six great feasts of the church year: Christmas, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity. All six feasts fall in six months of the year, followed by six months of “green Sundays,” sometimes referred to as “ordinary time” with no major feasts.
Because Epiphany is always on January 6, 12 days after Christmas, it rarely falls on a Sunday. This year is a novelty.
It seems there was some difference about when to celebrate Christmas. The first Christmas in Eastern Christianity was probably January 6. Because of the 13-day difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, Ethiopians still celebrate Christmas on January 7 (which is December 25 on the Julian calendar). A few years ago, when the bishops went to the Holy Land at the request of Bishop Younan, it was a delight to celebrate Christmas here in the U.S. on December 25, then go to the Holy Land and celebrate it again on January 6.
Some early Christians believed that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit on the same day he was resurrected. Since they set that day around March 25, it was easy to count forward nine months to December 25, which was the date set for Christmas in the Western calendar.
Others believe Christmas was set to coincide with the pagan celebration of winter solstice, around December 21 (December 21 in 2018 and December 22 in 2019), and the birth of the late Roman era god of the sun. This idea, particularly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, claims Christmas was December 25 because it was also the date of the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun). When Christianity moved into German and Scandinavian areas, this coincided with Yule-time, a pagan festival which ran from late December into early January. The historian Bede said December 25 was the first day of the pagan year.
So there are lots of theories about how December 25 or January 6 were set for Christmas, none of them having to do with any actual information about the day Jesus was born. Little of this will have interest for the typical worshipper. For Western Christians, Epiphany is about the visit of the Magi. We will celebrate the Baptism of Jesus next Sunday.
For Eastern Christians, Epiphany is about the Baptism of Jesus. In the Eastern Church the historical theme was the mystery of the incarnation. It included Jesus’ birth, the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, some of his childhood events and even the wedding at Cana. The earliest reference to Epiphany is in 361 A.D. For a while Christ’s Epiphany and his birthday were used interchangeably. In 385 Epiphany still commemorated the birth of Christ. It was also called the Day of Theophany. Even into the 5th century John Cassian tells us that the Egyptian monasteries were celebrating Jesus’ birth and baptism on the same day, but other churches had begun to separate the festivals.
For us in the West, Epiphany is the culmination of the 12-day Christmas season. Some Latino cultures have a 40-day Christmas which extends to Candlemas on February 2. I could spend a lot of time going into the developments of the calendar and the religious festivals, because it fascinates me. However, I’ve discovered that while I and a few of you are interested by this stuff, the majority of our people aren’t. The preacher might dare a short paragraph on the development of the holiday for those who bask in the esoteric, but the bulk of the faithful are less interested in history and more interested in “what does all this mean for us today?”
The coming of the Magi is a tremendous opportunity to talk about gift-giving and generosity.
We bring our gifts, whatever we have in our hands to Christ. We offer our time, talents and treasure to God’s work of renewing the world. I am reminded of Christina Rossetti’s famous poem “In The Bleak Midwinter” which was set to a brooding hymn tone. The final stanza goes like this:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Another potential theme is global diversity.
In the New Testament texts, the coming of the Magi is symbolic of the nations coming to Christ. It is a turning point. The gospel is for the Gentiles, for all people. This theme is picked up in the epistle reading from Ephesians. Paul states unequivocally that the mystery of the gospel that has been hidden for the ages is this: That God planned all along to bring in the nations. This was foretold by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 60, our Hebrew Bible reading. We hear this in Joel as well, when YHWH says “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.”
Divine favor is not only those who keep Torah, who eat kosher, observe Sabbath in a strict way, and commemorate Pesach and other festivals. Christ is now our Pesach, our Passover.
Another theme is local and global mission.
The gospel for the world – the whole world. This means not preaching our culture, or even our peculiar religious traditions. This means preaching Christ alone.
Therefore, Christianity in China will look a bit different than it does in Germany, or North Dakota. Christianity, and also Lutheranism, look very different in Latin countries than they do here. This is something to celebrate. The core message is the same, but many of the customs and traditions are different.
In the southern hemisphere, Christmas and Epiphany are not about the days getting longer, or about snowscapes and a heavily clad Santa Claus. There Christmas falls on the longest, hottest day of the year. Epiphany may be a time for us to learn to strip our proclamation of Christ of its cultural trappings, down to the meat of the matter, so that we ensure that we are proclaiming Christ to the world, and not our cultural bias.
Epiphany may be a time to consider sponsoring a missionary. Even a small amount helps! http://www.elca.org/missionaries. Get started with a special Epiphany season offering.
Another theme is local mission.
Epiphany is also a time to consider the ways that Christ comes to those in our own culture who have wandered from God. An increasing portion of our own population have no church home. How do you proclaim Christ into this increasingly irreligious world? The reality of the Magi has implications for local mission:
ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα. “Behold, Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem.” The word μάγοι (magoi) is the plural of μάγος (magos), a word used for a hundred years before Jesus to refer to Zoroastrian priests. Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) lived at least 6,000 years before Jesus. He was probably Persian by birth, but no one knows for sure. Most agree Eastern Iran, probably.
Zoroaster founded a religion now known as Zoroastrianism or Mazdaism or Magianism, through the writing of hymns and liturgical pieces. Zoroastrianism focused on the worship of Ahura Mazda, a transcendent, benevolent deity. Zoroastrianism was at some point in the two millennia before Christ, the largest religion in the world.
Magi were Zoroastrian priests who studied the stars and gathered from them the fate of humanity. The oldest surviving reference to a μάγος is in Heraclitus (6th century B.C.), who does not give them a good review. A century later (5th C. B.C.) Heroditus uses “magi” a couple of times while commenting on Iranian expats living in Asia Minor. He calls them interpreters of omens and dreams. Xenophon (4th C. B.C.) refers to magi as experts in all matters of religion.
The Hellensitic world came to view Zoroaster as the father of magic and astrology. Later these priests came to be seen as tricksters, charlatans and cheats. Magi became associated with magic. Zoroaster was the figurehead for the magi. Some believe we have seven days in the week today because Zoroastrians believed there were seven planets. The Suda (an ancient encyclopedia of the Mediterranean world) claims that the Babylonians learned astronomy from Zoroaster. There is archeological evidence that the Chinese character/word Wu (shaman/witch/wizard/magician), was a loan from the old Persian word magus.
Sadaam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party often pejoratively called Iranians “majus,” insinuating that they were not true Muslims, but captive to an older pre-Muslim religion based on magic and paganism.
In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – the Old Testament (the Septuagint of Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 2:10, 2:27; 4:4; 5:7, 5:11, 5:15), magus is usually translated magician. This is pejorative as well, since Jewish law forbade sorcery of any kind.
The New Testament (Acts of the Apostles 8:9; 13:6, 8) usually translates magus as “magician,” except in this Sunday’s text from Matthew, where it is transliterated “Magi” or translated “wise men.” This is an odd choice based more on legends than linguistics. Interesting though: Justin, Origen, Augustine and Jerome all translated magus as “magician,” even in today’s passage from Matthew.
How does it change our understanding of Matthew’s message to read this gospel text as follows? “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magicians from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
How would this impact the way are people hear the text? What does it mean that a band of magicians showed up in Jesus’ hometown? What would it mean that Zoroastrian priests following a star came to visit Jesus? Indeed, what does it mean to them that Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus today revere Jesus?
The Magi were pagans. There is great symbolism here. Pagans today are interested in Jesus as well. It’s the patriarchal church they have problems with. Instead of seeing those who are disillusioned with the church as enemies, what might it look like to view them as we view the Magi? Seekers. Many people look for truth, regardless of the artificial boundaries of our religious clubs. What if we honored the spiritual hunger they have, and the righteous indignation they have when religious communities are more competitive and self-focused than other-focused? How might we welcome them to the manger? How might the Spirit be using them to purify the church?
Finally, there are also power themes in this text.
Herod is afraid to lose his tenuous grasp on power, a power he has only at the will of the Empire. He will stop at nothing to keep that power. The Christmas/Epiphany story is set in a violent world where children are slaughtered. This is no fairy tale. It reflects the gritty realities of our world.
We have here a continuation of the paradoxes, opposites we heard in the Christmas story. Angels vs. shepherds, the mighty vs. the humble, the first vs. the least city of Judah, kings vs. animals, an inn vs. a stable, mortality versus the infinite. Here we have the ruthless power and scheming of a king who will stop at nothing, versus the innocence, vulnerability and faith of a child who welcomes all, even magicians. “The difference between Herod’s rule and the one to be born in Bethlehem could not be more stark,” says Stanley Hauerwas in Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible).
If you go with this approach, consider substituting Revelation 12:1-6 as the epistle reading. Some associate Herod with this text.
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. (Rev. 12:1-4)
A woman, clothed with the sun, moon under her feet, crown of stars, bears a child to rule the nations. Mary. Then a red, seven-headed dragon wants to devour the child. Herod? Or Rome (city of seven hills)? Herod is certainly Rome’s functionary. Sadly, this text never gets read in Lutheran churches. Using it allows you to use an unused text, gives you an opportunity to teach people how to read John’s Revelation, and helps you clarify the power dynamics in this text.
The preacher may also want to exploit a winsome theme about following stars. What stars do we follow in life and where do they lead? Look up. What do you see? Where is God leading?
Perhaps this is a time to talk about our relationship to civil authority, or to the power structures of the day. When is it appropriate to challenge civil authority? A few years ago I recall the execution of 132 children at a school in Peshawar Pakistan. Boko Haram is still active in Nigeria, kidnapping children and forcing them to marry. Herod’s execution order is not so far fetched. It is, sadly, our world. With all the shootings we have seen here in the U.S. its close to home. Since 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary there have been hundreds more school shootings. Perhaps this is a Sunday to pray for children everywhere.
The night is still dark
The night is still dark
And a procession of Herods still terrorize the earth
Killing the children to stay in power
The world still knows its Herods
And the world still knows those persons
To follow a star
Those who do not consider themselves
To kneel to a child…