The Gift of Epiphany
Have you ever thrown a birthday party and have people show up late? I remember a few years ago my sister-in-law and I put on a surprise birthday party for my brother. The three of us would go bowling and the rest of his friends were going to surprise him there. One friend was inside orchestrating things, and we were gonna get there 15 minutes after everyone else. When we got to the parking lot my brother saw a couple friends he hadn’t seen in a while. They were obviously late for the party. And he looked at them in the parking lot, but they ignored him. “What’s their problem?” he said to me. “They were some of my best friends in high school. I know I haven’t seen them in a while but now they ignore me when I run into them, what’s their deal?” He was only bothered by it for a minute though, because when we got inside, they were with the rest of the group surprising him for his birthday. Fortunately their being late to the party didn’t ruin the surprise.
In the Gospel today it was the Wise Men who were late to the party. You see, traditionally it’s understood that the Wise Men came 13 days after Jesus was born. That’s why Christmas is a 12-day festival and Epiphany marks the beginning of the season of God revealing Christ to the world. The Wise Men’s coming late didn’t ruin the surprise at all though, they only added to the mystery and awe that Mary and Joseph must’ve felt.
The day of Epiphany is about God’s revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. Gentiles is the Hebrew word for nations, so it basically means all the peoples of the world who are not Jewish. God’s revelation of Christ to the world at large begins with the coming of the Wise Men from the east at Epiphany.
The Wise Men, or “Magi,” were astrologers from Persia. Magi were from the priestly class of the Zoroastrian religion. It’s interesting that the leadership of another nation and another religion recognize the importance of Jesus’ birth, but King Herod and his circle do not. And the fact that a practice like reading the stars for signs—which was forbidden for the Hebrew people in the Old Testament—is now being used as a way to connect foreign people with the birth of the Messiah, is an important message for us about how God works to connect all humanity with the Child born in Bethlehem.
What the Magi give to Jesus is very symbolic. They gave gifts which represent his role as prophet, priest, and king. The gold symbolizes his kingly role. Frankincense represents his priestly or divine role. And myrrh was a strange gift to give a child because it was used for anointing bodies before burial. It represents Jesus’ role as prophet and foretells his crucifixion and sacrificial role.
These Wise Men seemed to understand something about Jesus that even his parents did not yet fully comprehend. God revealed something special to them about this baby boy. It’s important for us to notice how God includes these Gentiles in God’s salvation plan. And God communicates with them through the stars and through dreams. Here the Bible teaches that God communicates and works through priests of a completely foreign religion. It’s a pretty bold statement when you think about it. That’s the big revelation of Epiphany. On Christmas we see God become incarnate and the message is proclaimed to Jewish peasants, the shepherds and Mary and Joseph. And now the incarnation is revealed to foreign people, Wise Men from the east, priests of a different religion.
The good news of Epiphany is that there are no limits to who God wants to share the message of Christ’s birth with. God will go to any extent to draw us in and have a relationship with us. Even these foreign Magi are invited to celebrate Messiah’s birth.
It's really something if you think about how Christ’s coming is often interpreted these days. Some may think God only worked through Jews up to the time of Jesus and then Christians from that moment on. But the Bible is clear that God has relationships with people of other religions too, and that they may even have wisdom that we can learn from. The day of Epiphany teaches us that yes Jews and Christians have a special relationship with God, with certain knowledge of God and access to God. But other religions have knowledge about and access to God too. And the Bible tells us that these faithful Gentiles have a part in God’s plan of salvation for the whole world.
The early church understood this as the meaning of the holiday of Epiphany. From its very beginning Christianity was an inclusive religion, incorporating Judaism into its tradition. And that’s why the early church was so attractive to people of other religions. Because it was inclusive and honored the wisdom of their traditions and incorporated them into various forms of Christianity. It wasn’t until Christianity became the established religion of an empire that our theology became more of a “my way or the highway” kind of doctrine.
Stories like the coming of the Wise Men highlight our inclusive heritage. And reveal that other religions are partners, not opponents, in humanity’s adventure of encountering the divine.
So this Epiphany let us remember how Christ’s birth among us included insiders and outsiders, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles. Let us rejoice in this baby born for the whole world. And remember this baby was not born just to be the savior of the whole world, but of you specifically. Some people tend to focus on Jesus as personal savior and forget about the larger picture. And others tend to focus on the larger cosmic implications but neglect the personal, relational nature of Jesus’ coming. Both are true. Jesus Christ was born to be the savior of the whole world, and Jesus was born for you personally. He cares for each of us individually and welcomes us all into personal relationship with him. And that’s not just true for you and me, it’s the case for everyone of every time and every place. That’s the good news of Christmas and Epiphany, the good news we are called to share with the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.