*This piece originally ran on Epiphany 2015. We saw fit to repost it this year, as well.
The word Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance” (Greek epiphaneia). The Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6, though in some places it is celebrated on the Sunday after January 1. In the Western Church, we typically associate the Feast with the visitation of the gift-bearing Magi or Wisemen to the infant Jesus as recorded in Matthew 2:1-12, though in many cultures, the Nativity and Epiphany together make up one celebration or only Epiphany is celebrated. Matthew’s description of the visit of the Magi does not provide many details about the encounter, but is nevertheless rich for reflection on it’s teaching.
1. Every Soul Longs for Christ
We all want Jesus because we’re made to. We don’t always realise it or even act like it, but even when we act like we want something else, we’re really longing for Christ. “Even the man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God”, remarked Chesterton, “he just has the wrong address.” The Magi certainly didn’t know what their longing may have meant, but they knew they had to follow where it led them. They were unlikely sojourners, too. That they are referred to as “Magicians” by Matthew is not meant to stir up the image of wise sages. It is a challenge to the Jewish Christians he is writing to, reminding them that yes, even these non-children of Israel, these “Magicians” from the east are looking for Christ. Just like you and me.
2. Acts of Faith Transcend Understanding
It’s unlikely the Magi had any clue what they were doing. They were looking for the newborn king of the Jews to bring him kingly gifts. That they found Him in a manger, born to a poor Jewish girl most likely confused them. But they worshipped all the same. There is a modern tendency to want to control everything (actually, it seems to go back to the beginning), to have God’s providence work out our terms we are familiar with and have agreed to. “I will not submit unless [full in laundry list of demands].” It is antithetical to relationship. No healthy human relationship functions this way, let alone relationship with the Author of Creation, so why do we do it? This of course doesn’t mean that we set aside reason and understanding in favour of faith, but that, as Thomas says, the love of God is greater than knowledge concerning God. The Magi worshipped, though they did not understand.
3. The Family is Where Love is Embodied
Our identity does not stand apart from the context of our human relationships. The Magi came and found, not a guru alone on a rock in the “Om” position, but a baby in a family. We are revealed in and among our relationships. The family is the first place our identity is protected and nurtured. Human existence is inherently relational and families matter.
4. We are Born to Die
I don’t mean this in the way it’s been said, “the moment you’re born you start to die”, or however that bit of non-spiration goes. I mean we were created to lose ourselves. Or more accurately, to give ourselves away. The Magi, Matthew tells us, “opened their treasures”. They gave the best of what they had. Not only that, but they risked death in their journey and by inquiring first of Herod where the newborn King of the Jews was to be found. Their gifts also foreshadow the destiny of the baby at Whose feet they are laid. Incense, recalls his priestly office and sacrificial destiny, born to give Himself as an offering; Myrrh, used in embalming, in medicine, and in preparing oil of anointing, foreshadows his burial his and status as the Anointed, Who heals the wounds of sin and division; and Gold, speaks to His kingship, but not the kind of kingship the Jews or the world were looking for. There is more death imagery in the Nativity account than an Emily Dickinson poem. Don’t mistake this reflection for morbidity. This handing over of self shows us the way of love we are all made for. We are born to die. The most beautiful description of this deepest principle of reality I know of comes from The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis. In the chapter on Heaven, he writes,
“From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication, becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated, and so forever. This is not a heavenly law which we can escape by remaining earthly, nor an earthly law which we can escape by being saved. What is outside the system of self-giving is not earth, nor nature, nor ‘ordinary life’, but simply and solely hell…“The golden apple of selfhood, thrown among the false gods, became an apple of discord because they scrambled for it. They did not know the first rule of the holy game, which is that every player must by all means touch the ball and then immediately pass it on. To be found with it in your hands is a fault: to cling to it, death. But when it flies to and fro among the players too swift for eye to follow, and the great master Himself leads the revelry…”There is joy in the dance, but it does not exist for the sake of joy. It does not even exist for the sake of good, or of love. It is Love Himself, and Good Himself, and therefore happy. It does not exist for us, but we for it.”
5. God is Revealed Where we do Not Expect
There are no “ordinary” places, events, people. Time and space are hallowed. Let us purge the vestiges of Gnosticism and pagan anti-materialism. Flesh and bone and time and space is where God does His work because that’s where we live. The classical imagery is radical enough…a baby, a virgin, barn animals…but that’s the tip of the theological iceberg. The real scandal of Christmas is that God became a human being. A crying, stinky, dirty, sweaty, tired, eating, drinking, hungry, thirsty, angry, son, friend, houseguest, rabbi, etc. etc. MAN. Those who expect God to show Himself in thunder and blinding flashes of lightning have it all wrong. His plan unfolds in human history and experience. The gritty earthiness of the nativity reminds us of this. Augustine nails it:
“He by whom all things were made was made one of all things. The Son of God by the Father without a mother became the Son of man by a mother without a father. The Word Who is God before all time became flesh at the appointed time. The maker of the sun was made under the sun. He Who fills the world lays in a manger, great in the form of God but tiny in the form of a servant; this was in such a way that neither was His greatness diminished by His tininess, nor was His tininess overcome by His greatness.” (Sermon 187)
6. It’s Easy to Miss Christ
My wife observed the other day that nativity scenes in Italy tend to be far more elaborate than the classic stable and Holy Family sets we typically see in living rooms and windows in the States. Many of them have moving parts…a man chopping wood, drunkards playing cards in a tavern, a woman hauling water from a well, merchants selling wares in the market, Magi weaving their way through town in search of the newborn King…in these scenes, you actually have to search for Christ. Sound familiar? Awareness of the presence of God and of His providence takes effort in the midst of the noise of the world. Perhaps it’s not close enough though to say that it takes effort, as if human effort alone is sufficient to come to Christ (heresy!). Consider that the Magi sought, but were also led by a star. They found Christ because they allowed themselves to be led to Him.
7. Christ Will Always be a Sign of Contradiction to the World
Stop trying to reconcile Christ to the world. There can be no compromise or middle ground between them, for Christ comes to upset the machine of the world. Convert the world to Christ, definitely, but stop trying to make the world Christian. Herod and the people were greatly troubled by the advent of the child King. Conversion is always an imposition at first…that’s why we need it. Again, Chesterton: “We don’t want a religion that’s right where we’re right, we want a religion that’s right where we’re wrong.”
8. Conversion to Christ is Always a Joyful Surprise
Ask any convert. Their reaction is nearly always surprise, excitement, joy…something close to hilarity. They laugh when they speak of how they have been brought to Christ, how unlikely it all was but how it all seemed so fated. Whatever you get when you cross total coincidence with total providence, that’s what it’s like. The Magi didn’t grasp the full meaning of their meeting, but it brought them joy. I bet they even laughed a little at the whole thing.
9. Conversion Stories are all the Same. And all Different
Everyone comes to Christ the same way but radically different. Get a group of converts talking to one another and while each will have their own unique story to tell, there will also be a lot of “you too?! Me too!” The story of the Magi has the elements common to conversion stories…an unlikely beginning, opposition from the peripheral players in one’s life, being surprised and shocked and overjoyed at what God reveals the truth to be, joy, putting one’s gifts toward His service, and going home a different way than you came (see #11).
10. You Have no Idea
No one aware of what God is doing in their life ever says, “Oh yeah, that makes sense. I totally saw that coming.” Search the Gospels, the entirety of Salvation History. No one even sees it coming. The shock of the Nativity scene has lost its effect on us, much like the cross. Look at it with new eyes. It’s absurd, it’s scandalous, it’s nothing anyone would have guessed. Imagine what God is going to do next in your life. On second thought, don’t, because you’re probably wrong. Just be open to the absurd.
11. This Changes Everything
The Magi are changed from their encounter. We don’t hear anything else about them (one tradition holds that they died as Christian martyrs and their relics now reside in the Cathedral in Cologne in Germany) but we are told they don’t go back the way they came, for fear of Herod. Just as, once we have seen what life means, we cannot go back the way we came, for we know now that that way will mean death. Everything changes now. Now, everything begins anew.
*Cover image from womenoffaith.com