How do you know when the Christmas season is concluded? When the children return to school? When the first bills from all the shopping come rolling in? When the gnawing question, “Is this all there is?” seems to be a permanent fixture in your mind? When the decorations are carefully stored for another year? When the worship service is designed around the visit of the Magi and the word Epiphany is tossed about as if everyone knows what it means? How do you know when the Christmas season is over? When we are finished with the Christmas season, is the season finished with us?
For centuries Christians have found it helpful to focus on the different stages of Jesus’ life throughout the year as a means to help them to be formed, shaped, and molded as disciples of Christ. This led to the development of the Christian calendar and worship seasons identified as Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost, Advent, and Epiphany.
Although we have heard all of our lives that Jesus was born and lived as a human being, only now and then do we catch a glimpse of the significance and value of this event. Epiphany is a season to emphasize what we said was going to happen during Advent. During Advent we anticipated God dwelling with us. During Epiphany we demonstrate the power and importance of God dwelling in and through us and what our response is to be to such action by God. To summarize in two brief phrases what Christianity is all about is to say: God acts; we respond.
God Became What We Are
The birth of Jesus demonstrates that God dwells among people. This was a profoundly human event. It was the birth of a human being by whose humanness we measure our own. It was the birth of a human being with a face. Although none of us has ever seen it, it is a face we would recognize because for twenty centuries it has been of all faces that one that our world has been haunted by the most.
A major distinctive of Christianity is the conviction that God knows our situation because God poured Himself into Jesus of Nazareth and lived the life of a human being. We worship a God who knows what suffering is because God suffered. God knows our situation because God is willing to pour Himself into our lives, willing to put as much of Himself into our lives as we are willing to receive. God became vulnerable by asking us to permit Him to dwell in our lives. This is how God discloses Himself to the world, through people like you and me. Isn’t that risky?
One of the places where God’s vulnerability becomes evident is in the story of the Magi. As a result of the Magi’s visit, Herod’s wrath was stirred, and he went on a seek-and-destroy mission. We often sing the familiar Christmas carol We Three Kings of Orient Are. For centuries — and continuing in many Christian congregations today — Christmas carols were not sung until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Then they were sung for the twelve days of Christmas, which are the days from Christmas to Epiphany. Advent is celebrated completely as expectation, with the eagerness and expectation of the coming of God in Christ building, mounting, until it erupts in a crescendo of celebration on Christmas.
The Magi came looking for Jesus but they came late, perhaps as much as two years after His birth. There is nothing in Matthew’s account of the story that tells how many Magi there were or that they were kings. Because three types of gifts are identified by Matthew, many have assumed that three people brought the gifts. The gifts which the Magi gave — gold, frankincense, and myrrh — have developed symbolic meaning. Gold symbolized royalty, frankincense divinity, and myrrh humanity. These gifts were characteristic of that time, especially if the gifts were intended for a king.
Magi originally were a priestly caste among the Medes. They served the same function for the Medes that the Levites did for the Israelites. Later the Magi were recognized as teachers of religion and science among the Medo-Persians, with special interest in astrology and medicine. Through their roles as teachers the Magi came to be identified as wise men.
The Magi went to Jerusalem and asked about the born king. They said they had seen His star rise in the East. The Magi were astrologers, people who observed and studied the stars. Apparently some heavenly brilliance had spoken to the Magi which they interpreted as the entry of a king into the world.
The word that Matthew used to refer to the one born king is the word for child; whereas, Luke’s reference is to an infant. This suggests that Jesus was beyond one year of age when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. A second indication that Jesus may have been a year or more old at this time is Herod’s decree that all male children two years of age and younger in Bethlehem and its neighborhoods be killed. Herod was taking no chances in getting rid of one who he feared would overtake his throne.
Herod solicited the help of the Magi in locating this child born king. Rather than the Magi seeking Herod, he sought them. He requested their aid under the pretense that he, too, wished to worship Him. For some reason the Magi did not believe Herod was being honest about his intentions. Perhaps Herod’s reputation had preceded him. Perhaps it was the urgency with which Herod had sought them when they arrived in Jerusalem and was asking them questions. Maybe it was through their encounter with Herod that they sensed insincerity and were suspicious of Herod’s motives.
Whatever aroused them, the Magi’s suspicions were focused in a dream through which they were instructed to return home from Bethlehem by another road rather than traveling through Jerusalem. When Herod realized what had happened he was furious. That was when he sent out the murder decree and put a price on the head of every two-year-old and younger boy living in and around Bethlehem.
With Herod expressing this kind of furor, Joseph dreamed of a place of safety for his family. They packed their things and headed for Egypt. They remained there until Herod died. They then returned to Israel. Joseph decided to by-pass Bethlehem and Judea and went to Nazareth in Galilee where he and the family settled down.
The Meaning of Epiphany
With the passing of time and the continued interest in stories about the life of Jesus, an increasing emphasis was placed on the significance, circumstances, and events surrounding His birth. These factors had an impact on Matthew as he sought to record his account of the life of Jesus Christ.
The early church found in Matthew’s record some aspects about the life of Jesus that it felt should be emphasized. Thus Eastern Christianity developed a strong emphasis on the birth of Jesus and highlighted the visit of the Magi as an event rich with symbolism. It came to be called the celebration of Epiphany. It was first mentioned by Clement of Alexandria as far back as A.D. 200 and actually is an older celebration than Christmas. By the fourth century, Epiphany had come to rank with Easter and Pentecost as one of the three great festivals of the Eastern Church and its vigil was a day commonly chosen for the baptism of converts. Indeed, Epiphany meant the good news of God’s love was for everybody.
The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” and means to show or reveal. Epiphany became the festival celebrated to commemorate the coming of God in Christ to the Gentiles and thus to all people. Epiphany became the festival in the life of the Church to celebrate the universality of the Gospel. By sharing in worship in the season of Epiphany, we are joining ourselves with disciples of Christ all over the world who are offering thanks and gratitude to God for becoming a human being and dwelling among and with human beings as one of us.
January 6 was designated centuries ago as the day when these men from the East journeyed to Bethlehem in Judea in search of one whose star they claimed to have seen rising on the horizon. There is no way to determine the exact date that these men saw Jesus, just as there is no way to determine the exact date when Jesus was born. Studies that have been done regarding the routine of shepherds in Palestine show it is more likely that Jesus was born in March than in December. However, it has been helpful to us to have a date designated as the birth of Christ. This designation has helped us focus on the importance and significance of Jesus’ birth regardless of when it actually occurred.
The birth and manifestation of Jesus are significant aspects of the incarnation — the in-fleshment of God, or how God came to dwell as completely as possible in a human being.
Thus the worship season of Epiphany developed within the life of the Christian Church to highlight the revelation of God through Jesus of Nazareth. The biblical story that served as the focal point for this was the visit of the Magi to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in search of the one born king whose star the Magi had seen rise in the East.
Giving the Big Gift
The early church leaders recognized and affirmed that gift giving was as old as God. God began giving when God created the world. It is part of the nature of God to keep on giving by continuing to create more and more life and to give the gift of creativity, the gift that keeps on giving. Early in biblical religion is the expression of gift giving to God as sign and symbol of the worship of God.
The story of the Magi or the wise men, which only Matthew records, became a highly significant story in the early Church. In the context of the birth of Jesus, gift giving is associated most often with the wise men, and I think it is significant that the early Church leaders focused on this story before they focused on and emphasized the birth of Jesus.
The Magi did two things that illustrate for us how we can keep from being distracted by the hoopla that has encroached on the Christmas season and how we can keep the giving spirit alive throughout the year. The first thing the Magi did when they were in the presence of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus was to throw themselves face down upon the ground in front of Jesus. This was the body language of their culture that expressed total submission to the one before whom they bowed. The Magi gave of themselves in worship of God at the feet of the infant King. The second thing the Magi did was to present tangible gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts were incidentals, symbols of giving themselves.
Here is great truth for us. God becomes flesh and dwells in us calling us to give the big gift every year. The big gift is not a video camera, a mink stole, a remote control car, or a diamond ring. The big gift that keeps on giving is ourselves. The symbols we have of giving ourselves is to give our money, our time, and our abilities.
The big gift that God gives is Himself and we are invited to give ourselves to God in kind. Epiphany is a time to worship the God who poured Himself into a baby born in Bethlehem. Epiphany is the time to continue and carry through the Christian year what we began in Advent. With eager anticipation we awaited the greatest gift, the coming of God to us. God has acted. We are invited to respond. We are the big gifts that matter, offering ourselves to God to become His representatives in the world.
Epiphany and the beginning of the new year is an excellent time to give ourselves to other people. The irony of what happens to so many of us during the Christmas season is that we busy ourselves so much with shopping, buying, wrapping, and decorating that we give little or no time and energy to our relationships. We neglect the very people we claim to be remembering.
Several years ago there was a beautiful little girl in the hospital at Vanderbilt University. She came from a wealthy family, and her family showered her with expensive gifts while she was in the hospital. There were great overstuffed toys (including a six foot tall giraffe), dolls, a doll house, and games of every description. The mother, who was well known in social circles, brought something new every time she came to see her daughter. She never stayed long when she came, because she was due at a luncheon or party, but she never failed to bring a gift. The nurses complained about the abundance of toys that made it difficult for them to get about in the room.
One day the little girl was particularly unhappy in the midst of all her fine gifts, and held desperately to her mother as the mother was attempting to leave and not be late to a charity bazaar. The mother tried to divert the daughter’s attention by interesting her in the new toy she had brought that day. “Mommy,” cried the little girl, “I want you.” Surrounded by gifts, she wanted the most important thing of all, her mother’s presence.
This is a sobering story because it contains a nugget of truth about many of us. I wonder what would happen in our lives if we committed ourselves this Epiphany Sunday and the beginning of a new year to strive each day throughout this year to give the most basic gift of all — the love and devotion of our hearts.
To whom do we need to be giving our presence? It may be to our children that we need to give ourselves rather than substituting things. It may be to our spouses who often are taken for granted and who may have everything except a relationship with the persons to whom they have committed their lives. It may be we need to give ourselves to our friends and acquaintances whom we have permitted to see and know us only superficially so no strong bond has occurred. We may need to give ourselves to those we know who are in prisons of one kind or another, places of confinement because of misdeeds, or certain types of jobs, or ill health.
There are many people with whom we can share ourselves. The simple gift of ourselves, our undivided time and presence, is the finest thing we have to give. And when we give ourselves in love for the benefit of another, we will indeed be manifesting the presence of God in the world. Truly, this is good news for everybody!