By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. This feast takes place each year on January 6, and marks the arrival of the magi, who followed a star from a distant land to find the Christ-child. Like Christmas, Epiphany is more than a day.
Rather, it is an entire liturgical season of revelation that lasts until Lent. During this season, our scripture readings recall the many ways Jesus was revealed to people-- from his baptism, to the calling of the disciples, to the transfiguration. Every element of this season is meant to emphasize Jesus’ mission to bring God’s dream to the whole of creation.
It all begins with today’s gospel lesson from Matthew. While Luke’s gospel tells us of Mary’s child being born in a manger, and shepherds coming to pay their respects, it is only in Matthew’s gospel that we learn about the magi. The word ‘magi’ is Greek, and translates in English to ‘wise men’. The magi were a class of Zoroastrian priests and were renowned astrologers with a gift for interpreting dreams.* With time, the tradition of the magi evolved.They eventually became known as ‘kings’ and were each given names and histories.** While the gospel does not quantify the number of magi, the Eastern traditions have generally settled on twelve; while in the West we have landed on three.** This is likely because they brought three gifts - gold, frankincense, and myrrh.**
I would suggest that the magi also have much to offer us. Their very presence in Bethlehem is a gift, as it boldly proclaims that the Christ-child is for everyone, no exceptions. They help us begin to appreciate the breadth of God’s radical welcome and inclusivity. These religious leaders are referred to as Gentiles, a name for those who do not practice Judaism.
When they saw the rising of a star in the East, they experienced a call to come and bear witness. The magi turn their lives upside down, traveling from Persia, in what is now modern day Iran, all the way to Bethlehem. This journey would have taken several months, possibly even years. Bringing with them gifts that were meant more for a coronation, than for a new mother and child.
Yet the gifts represent the magi’s reverence for the Christ-child. The newly born King of the Jewish people would usher in a new kind of reign that would look like none other, before or since. A reign of Divine Love meant for the whole of creation.
And, something quite radical is worth noting. While every pilgrim is changed by their journey, these magi came to Bethlehem as Zorastian priests, and they went home as Zorastian priests. In other words, religious conversion was not required of the magi. Conversion to Judaism, or to the not-yet-even-an-idea religion of Christianity. The gift of the Christ-child is bigger than any one religion or way of life. Rather it is a gift of Divine Love for all.
The magi also offer us insight by contrasting the distinctly different reigns of Herod and Christ. In our story, the magi are unknowingly drawn into the self-interested web of destruction woven by Herod the Great. While Herod’s title was ‘King of Judea’, in reality, he was a political appointee. He served under, and at the pleasure of, Roman Emperor Augustus. Scholars have noted that he was only partially Jewish, and often would respond savagely to potential rivals, particularly Jewish rivals.*
Herod is a leader who seeks power and wants to hold onto it at all costs. He immediately perceives the Christ-child as a threat. It ignites his fear, which spreads a wildfire of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety amongst the people of Jerusalem.
Herod does not care about the ripple effect of his beliefs, decisions, and actions. The suffering that ensues is of no concern to him. Herod misuses the resources of his position to learn where the Christ-child was thought to be born. He then attempts to manipulate the magi, hoping to trick them into telling him the location of the child, so he might ‘pay his respects’. Yet that kind of selfishness leaves its mark, and when we pay attention, our intuition will raise the alarm and guide us away.
The magi do go on to find the Christ-child in Bethlehem and are ‘overwhelmed with joy’. Yet having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they go home by another way. When Herod realizes the magi caught on to his despair and trickery, avoiding him altogether, it sends him even further into madness. In the verses that follow today’s, Herod retaliates by sending soldiers to kill all the children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem. The untold suffering that resulted from this one man’s selfishness and fear is incomprehensible. Thankfully, like the magi, Joseph had been warned in a dream, and had led the holy family into Egypt where they lived as refugees until Herod’s death.
Herod’s self-interested and fear-driven model of leadership is uncomfortably familiar. We have seen it throughout all forms of government, and across the political spectrum. Self-interest and fear drives too many leaders, and those ‘served’ are the ones who suffer most.
The magi’s pilgrimage points us toward an entirely different kind of leadership. They guide us to a mother and her young child. A child born from an all powerful Creator, who willingly set it all aside, to embody Divine Love as the ultimate gift for the whole of creation. Lifting up a vision for this world like one we’ve yet to truly comprehend. God’s dream is a vision that upholds the whole of the human family and all of creation. A vision of a world ruled by divine justice; where the riches of creation are cared for and made available to all; that Love is the rule that guides our beliefs, decisions, and actions.
Finally, the magi also offer us an opportunity for self-reflection. Reflection that is imperative if we want to help bring about God’s dream for this world.
The magi witness the ripple effect of Herod’s fear, just as we watch fear play out in the news on a daily basis. The misinformation that spreads, the misunderstandings that ensues, the misuse of power and resources, and the senseless suffering of innocents. Witnessing such destruction invites us to take a holy pause and examine our own inner landscape.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama write about fear in The Book of Joy.
“For fear, it can help to face the fear directly. You can think of the worst thing that could happen if your fear comes true. Now, could you or your loved one survive what might happen? Could it actually be beneficial for you or your loved ones? What could you or they learn if this were to happen? How might this allow you or them to grow and deepen as a person? For example, perhaps you are worried about your child who is struggling in school and you are afraid some bad outcome will come to pass. Ask yourself, ‘Is it true that this outcome will definitely happen? How do I know for sure? Does my worry help the situation? Is there a better way of thinking about it or approaching the situation? What might my child learn from that experience? How might they grow and develop as a person?’ When we turn and embrace what we fear, it loses its power to frighten us. We no longer need to fight it, but can instead work with it.” ***
What would it look like to try this exercise? In any case, as we head back out into the world today, I hope we might accept the magi’s invitation to examine our own inner landscape. To consider:
*NRSV, p.1749; JANT, p.13;
*** The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, p. 317-318.
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