The twelve days of Christmas are over. The Christmas season ended on the 6 January. Traditionally all Christmas decorations and Christmas trees are by now removed. The 6 January, called Epiphany, is a significant Feast Day in the Church. For the Eastern Church, Epiphany is the day they mark the baptism of Jesus. Within twelve days, a leap is made from a baby in a manger, in Bethlehem, to Jesus as a young man being baptised by John in the River Jordan. For the Western Church, Epiphany did not require this chronological leap, but centred on the wise men bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child.
Epiphany has the meaning of manifestation, revelation, disclosure of something great and of special significance. The coming of the wise men and the baptism of Jesus both carry this sense of making known something of importance. Wise men search for the “King of the Jews” and what do they find – a baby and they kneel and pay him homage. Jesus’ baptism brings according to Matthew, the opening of the heavens, the Spirit of God descending like a dove and the words “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
These two manifestations or revelations are not so much historical happenings but theological reflections on the importance of Jesus for the early Christian communities to whom the gospels are addressed.
Let’s concentrate our attention on Epiphany and the wise men. Note, we are never told there are three wise men – that’s the invention of the later church – based on the fact that three gifts are presented to the baby. Later generations have gone as far as to give the supposed three wise men names – Gaspar, Melchior, Balthazar – but this is myth and the stuff of legends.
Other legends have developed around them. Rex Hunt retells one about how
the Magi were three different ages. Gaspar was a young man. Balthasar in his middle years. Melchior a senior citizen.
When they approached the cave in Bethlehem they first went in one at a time.
Melchior found an old man like himself. They spoke together of memory and gratitude. The middle-aged Balthasar encountered a teacher of his own years. They spoke passionately of leadership and responsibility. When Gaspar entered, a young prophet met him with words of reform and promise. The three met outside the cave and marvelled at how each had gone in to see a new-born child, but each had met someone of his own years.*
Legend here conveys a theological message – that Jesus is the man for all seasons, for all peoples, all places, and all times. This does raise the question though, how far do we appropriate Jesus, and in the words of “Away in a manger”, reflect in him ,or project on Jesus, “the hopes and fears of all the years”. We find in Jesus what suits us. The wise men came looking for a king and found a baby. There’s something deeply challenging in this story; God is found not in a palace or on a throne, but in the defenceless, the weak, the powerless. This is Epiphany – the manifestation of a simple yet profound truth which confronts all symbols of status and power with an alternative view – all of humanity, especially a child, is due homage and respect.
Matthew’s account of the wise men seeking “a child who has been born King of the Jews” has them go to King Herod for guidance. Surely, they think, Herod will know where this future king is to be found? Drawing on the Hebrew Bible, Matthew has Herod’s advisors tell him that Bethlehem is the place where “a ruler who is to shepherd” God’s “people Israel” will come from. Alarmed about a possible rival, Herod tells the wise men to search out the child and let him know when they find him so that he can come and pay his homage. Our reading from Matthew today ended with the wise men being warned in a dream not to revisit Herod and so they go home another way.
The next passage, recapitulates the death of the first born male children in Egypt the night before the Israelites fled under the leadership of Moses. Joseph flees with Mary and Jesus to Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the innocent.
The American liberal theologian, Robert McAfee Brown, reprised this story of Herod and the wise men on Christmas Eve in 1972 during the American devastating bombing of Hanoi. He declares how “the Christmas story, for all its winsome beauty, is set firmly in the midst of a political situation – a situation in which the brutal power of a Herod is pitted against the apparently powerlessness of a tiny baby”. Herod, for Brown in his day, stands for the “rage” and “vindictiveness” of the ruler who resorts to the power of the sword to achieve his ends. The choice of the Christmas story is “either Christ or Herod”. For Brown, who was one of the prophets against the Vietnam War, there was “no possible way to justify” the “insane escalation of the bombing [of Hanoi]. It is the way of Herod, not the way of Christ.” The message of Christmas, “Peace on earth, goodwill to all people” cannot be combined with the use of the power of destruction. Brown starkly contrasts the choice as one between a baby and a bomber.†
Rex Hunt relates a story told by G.K. Chesterton about three modern wise men.
They journeyed to a city of peace, a new Bethlehem, where they offered their gifts. The first would offer gold suggesting it could buy the pleasures of earth. The second would offer the modern scent of chemistry - the power to drug the mind, seed the soil, control the population. The third would offer myrrh in the shape of a split atom - the symbol of death for anyone who opposed the ways of peace.
When they arrived they met Joseph, but he refused them entrance. They protested; “What more could we possibly need to assure peace? “We have the means to provide affluence, control nature and destroy enemies?”
Joseph whispered in the ear of each individually. They went away sad. He told them they had forgotten the child.*
At the heart of Epiphany, the journey of the wise men to Bethlehem, there is a choice – wise men reject the way of Herod; they bow down before a child; they don’t return to Herod; they return to their own country by another road.
Matthew begins his gospel tracing the genealogy of Jesus back through King David to Abraham. He gives Jesus a Jewish lineage and situates his birth within a real context – “In the time of King Herod”. The visitors, who come seeking the King of the Jews, travel from the East; they are wise men who follow a star in the sky. These are not men with a Jewish lineage, they are astrologers, from an Eastern world. Some have depicted them as Zoroastrians. The point of significance of this for us today is that the wise men represent the recognition by Matthew and his Jewish Christian community, that Jesus belongs not only to Jews but to people of other cultures also. The prophetic longing expressed in the Hebrew Bible for Gentiles to join with Jews in coming together in harmony and peace is symbolised in the journey of the wise men to the baby in Bethlehem. “Nations shall come to your light” our Isaiah reading proclaimed, “and kings to the brightness of your dawn.... They shall bring gold and frankincense”. (Isaiah 60.3, 6) If only this could be the case for Israel and Palestine today!
Matthew weaves his Epiphany story together in a context where Gentiles and Jews are emerging as the Christian community following in the way of Jesus. Paul had already given expression to this in declaring that there is neither Jew nor Greek in the Jesus community – they are all members of the one body.
We have entered a new year with all the hopes and fears of all the years ahead of us. Brexit, Aleppo, Isis and Terrorism, and the American election cast shadows from 2016 into 2017. We can go into this New Year somewhat fearful about the Herod’s of our world and the danger they bring to peace and goodwill among all people. W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”, written in 1919 after the cataclysmic conflict of the Great War, ends with apocalyptic words that have often come to my mind during 2016:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
But this is the way of despair that allows the Herods of this world to dominate our present and control our future. It contrasts with the journey of the wise who come to pay homage to a baby.
In another almost apocalyptic situation, which would lead into another five and half years of destructive war and the Jewish holocaust, King George VI in his 1939 Christmas broadcast quoted from a poem which begins:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
and he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come” – are the words of Isaiah (60.1) encouraging all nations to come together in peace and harmony. John (1.5) in his gospel declares that “The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has never quenched it”. Brown, in the face of the Christmas bombing of Hanoi proclaimed, that “No matter how thick the darkness, it is not all-engulfing. No matter how close it comes to destroying it cannot destroy totally.”†
We journey into 2017 inspired by the wise men, recognising that what is lasting and of greatest worth in our world is found in love, joy, faith, hope – not in power, not in swords or bombs – a baby is more precious than a Herod. We journey with the wise men to Bethlehem and find a baby that expresses vulnerable humanity. In our homage we recognise that the most precious human gift is life that needs to be valued and given every opportunity to reach its potential. We journey with the wise men to Bethlehem and recognise that in giving gifts from our own culture and riches, in affirming and accepting someone from a faith different from our own, we are joined together in celebrating our common life as people who dwell on this one earth together. We go into this New Year like the wise men who followed a star, as followers of a light which is stronger than the darkness of hate and the destruction brought by the abuse of political power. The light will continue to shine.
* Rex Hunt, “Magi: Dubious Facts But Christian Imagination”,
† Robert McAfee Brown, Speaking of Christianity: Practical Compassion, Social Justice, and Other Wonders, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997, pp.97-103.