Today, January 6, is the feast of Epiphany. For four weeks prior to Christmas we moved through the season of Advent – a season of hoping and expectation. The essence of Advent reflects our intuitive assessment that the world isn’t the way it should be. It speaks hope into our situation because of our after-the-fact perspective on the nativity. We know the savior of the world was born. But Advent also gives occasion for our explicit hope for the savior’s re-appearing. Then we finally reached Christmas (from the Old English Cristes Maesse, or Mass of Christ), the season for celebrating the reality of the nativity, the birth of God in flesh, the Incarnation. And though we may feel exhausted physically, mentally, and liturgically, Epiphany must not be skipped over as a superfluity at the end of this long journey.
If you think about it, the fact that an actual historical birth of a Jewish baby in Bethlehem two millennia ago is cause for a weighty religious, if not cultural, celebration today is astounding. How in the world did that happen? What happened was that the news spread; the word got out that this baby/kid/man was monumentally exceptional. And fundamentally, Epiphany is about the word getting out. We often take the word getting out for granted. That after-the-fact perspective of ours sometimes makes it hard for us to inhabit the depth and width of the story. We telescope the timeline, making sure we hit the big events and cover the important doctrines, but allow that pithy reality to escape our imaginations. The event of the nativity was important (and primary), but its significance would never reach us were it not for the epiphaneia (ἐπιφάνεια) to us. Epiphany distinguishes the fact of the Incarnation from the revealing of that fact to mankind.
The origin of the feast is shrouded in ambiguity and splotchy historical sources. If you want to know more about it, good luck making your way through this article. It seems that from very early, and for various possible reasons, on or near January 6, different corners of the church were celebrating different events in Jesus’ life that revealed his glory. His baptism was an important event (with the Trinitarian theophany of the Spirit dove and the Father’s voice), as well as his first miracle at Cana, the angels’ revelation to the shepherds at the nativity, and the visit of the Magi. All of these events were manifestations of the glory and/or the Divinity of Christ. But over time, and especially in the West, the visit of the Magi became the primary event linked with Epiphany.
The angelic announcement to the shepherds, Jesus’ baptism, and the initiatory miracle of turning water into wine were all events that spoke directly to the context into which Jesus was born. Jesus had a specific national and religious identity, and those events all connected him to an implicitly Jewish context. There was a specificity, even an exclusivity to Jesus’ ministry in Israel (Matt 15:21-28), and the majority of the Gospel accounts bear witness to the revelations of Jesus’ glory to Israel. The account in St. Matthew’s Gospel of the visitation of the Magi is of an entirely different nature, however. The Magi, of course, weren’t Jewish.
The significance of (traditionally three) men from so far away recognizing Jesus as a king so early in his life cannot be overstated. From what we know, chronologically, the shepherds were the first to “recognize” Jesus, then Simeon in the Temple at Jesus’ dedication, and then this extravagantly trimmed caravan of Gentile astrologers that had been traveling for months from the far, far East. The long awaited King of Israel was revealed first to paupers and heathens. But what about the exclusivity to the Jews? Early in Acts the question was raised by many in the Jerusalem church, “Is Christ also for the Gentiles?” The answer of course was yes. Though the Gospel had to land first in Israel, it was always meant for the whole world. Even in Jesus’ own ministry there was a sense in which he, as N. T. Wright put it, was smudging the borders, going around to the Gerasenes and Samaria, places very much on the outskirts of Israel proper. Then in his great commission to his disciples he made the charge explicit, to go into all the world. But before all of that, the proof that Christ’s light would break through national boundaries and light up the world was when uninitiated, unworthy Magi worshiped a baby as a King.
Just like Advent beckoned us to agonizing anticipation, and Christmas to a marathon celebration of the Nativity, Epiphany calls us to work out the ramifications of Christ being made known in all the world, and specifically to you and me. The sign that drew the Magi to the Christ child was a gift from God, a grace, just like God’s call to us is a gift of grace. We have no “right” to be called by God. God went to the trouble of arranging for a star in the heavens for the occasion, and the Magi weren’t too distracted to notice it or too lazy to follow it. How attentive and willing are we? Because the Magi knew they had sought out a king, they were aware he was deserving of valuable gifts. Is our search for Christ for our benefit or for his? And just like Advent and Christmas, Epiphany is a season, stretching forward all the way to Lent. So take advantage of the time to meditate on these things and more. And praise God for making himself known to us.
The Lord has shown forth his glory: Come let us adore him.
“I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation shall reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6b