In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:1-12)
I was talking with some pastor and church musician friends over the last week, comparing notes on how well we had survived the busy Advent and Christmas seasons. A recurring sentiment was that only now - after Christmas Eve, after Christmas Day, and after the two Sundays of this year’s Christmas season - did we finally feel ready to relax and enjoy the season that had just passed us by. In a similar vein, one high schooler here mentioned recently that she loved the way Christmas break worked out this year - you get Christmas and New Year’s done in the first week of break, and then have all of the second week of break to relax and enjoy the time off of school. The joy of the Christmas season is apparent in all of the bustle and trappings we afford to it, but we often find ourselves without the time and space to consider the deep meanings of the birth of Christ until after the Christmas season has already passed us by.
This is what Epiphany is for. Epiphany means “appearance,” and so we take this time, now that Christmas has passed, to consider the meaning of the appearance of Christ both in the manger and in our midst. We begin Epiphany each year by telling the story of the magi, and we usher in a church season focused on light and revelation. It is a season of signs and wonders, beginning with the fiery star burning brightly that leads a band of astrologers cross-country to figure out what divine and mysterious thing might have taken place.
We first hear of the magi as they journey to Jerusalem in pursuit of a star. They inqurie of Herod, figuring that he, the current King of the Jews, would know something about the star and about the newborn King of the Jews whose birth it signified. But they come to find that Herod knows nothing about the star or the baby or any King of the Jews apart from himself.
Martin Luther, in an Epiphany sermon, says “When Christ was born under Herod, the first foreign king, and the time of the prophecy was fulfilled, this wonderful sign occurred. He whom his own people and fellow citizens would neither seek nor acknowledge was sought by such strangers and foreigners for many days. To him whom the learned and the priests would not acknowledge and worship, came the wise men and astrologers. It was indeed a great shame for the whole land and people that Christ was born in their midst, and they should first become aware of it through these heathen people living so far away. At least in Jerusalem, the capitol city, they should have known about it.”
And so alas, it is the magi who have to break the news to Herod that a child has been born who is King of the Jews, which is shocking and frightening news for Herod, threatening both to him and to his heirs. Confronted with the news of a rival king, Herod panics. So much so, in fact, that he lets his fear drive him to violence, eventually massacring all children who he suspects to be Jesus’ age in an attempt to wipe out this threat to his own power and position.
Meanwhile, back to our own story. Our band of foreign astrologers continues on the way to Bethlehem, following “the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”
It is interesting to note that the magi meet Christ in the home, in the place where this holy child has come to dwell. Indeed, “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us,” John says in the beginning of his gospel, and “see, the home of God is among mortals,” Revelation tells us. These images of meeting Christ in the home remind us that our story of salvation hinges upon God’s willingness to make his home with us, in our own flesh, in our own world, in human time.
Because of this image of Christ in the home, one strain of Christian tradition uses Epiphany to consider the ways that Christ is met in our own homes, in visitors, and in hospitality. Following an eastern European tradition, some people thus choose to bless their homes on the night of Epiphany, inscribing a formula (20 + CMB + 11) over their front door in chalk that represents the new year, remember the magi, and asks Christ’s blessing on the house. Our confirmation class blessed the doorways to this house of worship in this way on Thursday night.
Christ’s dwelling among us, making his home in our world, is indeed a blessing...but it is not a safe blessing. Matthew’s gospel makes it very clear that the blessing of Immanuel, God-with-us, is a topsy-turvy blessing. It is a blessing that challenges power and shakes up the status quo.
“Into this world,” Thomas Merton says, “this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited....his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”
Christ makes his home not with kings, but with shepherds and quirky mages. He settles in for dinner wedged between tax collectors and sinners, bumping elbows with widows and lepers, even extending his touch to the unclean and the dead.
This is the fundamentally unsettling news of Christmas and Epiphany. It was unsettling news way back then, and it is unsettling news for us today. What do we do with the knowledge that Christ makes his home not among the powerful and strong, the rich and famous, the comfortable and well-off...but rather among the homeless, the weak, the outcast, and the despairing?
The characters in today’s gospel give us two options.
The first option is to react like Herod, in fear and panic. Honestly, it is in our human condition to feel threatened by this news of Jesus, the one who would rather empower the outcast and raise up the lowly than bless our success. It is part of our sinful nature to resist the news that Jesus came to seek out sinners rather than to congratulate the righteous.
But the second option is to check our fear at the door of Mary and Joseph’s house, to cast off our resistance along with our shoes, and to kneel before the child, joining the posture of the magi, the shepherds, the poor, the outcast, the sinners, the lost, and the forgotten.
Today’s gospel unsettles us and blesses us with the news that Christ makes his home precisely in those places in our world and our lives where we see only dirt and despair. It is a gospel that blesses us with the difficult but rewarding news that Christ’s birth means death to our self-sufficient and self-determined desires, but resurrection to light and new life. This new life means surrender, something that Herod couldn’t deal with, but an ultimately glorious surrender to the overwhelming abundance of life that only Christ can give us.
Martin Luther reminds us that the Epiphany story is “both a terrifying and consoling Gospel: terrifying to the great and wise, the self-satisfied and the mighty, because they all reject Christ; consoling to the humble and despised, because to them alone Christ is revealed.” On the days that we are sure that we have things figured out and under control, Christ comes to us in the things that shock us, disquiet us, and remind us of our humanness. On the days that we are sure things can’t get any worse, Christ comes to us in the things that restore us, give us hope, and remind us of God’s divine favor.
The poet T.S. Eliot imagines the magi returning home after being confronted with the birth of Christ:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
(T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”)
My prayer for us today, as we return home to the usual routines of life in these days after the Christmas season has passed, is that we too would be no longer at ease here, in our old dispensation, and that we would be no longer willing to clutch the same old tempting gods of success or wealth or power or status. My prayer is that we might return home by another road, a dirtier road, a road filled with beggars and seekers...and a road illumined by the light of Christ, whose good news to us is salvation and life..
So in all the unsettling moments of our lives, when we are humbled and exalted by blessing, in all of the surprising moments of our lives where the birth of Christ shakes us loose from the ordinary, in every circumstance that knocks us off balance and asks us to look with again at the star-lit manger, we rejoice, for in these moments, we are forever changed. In these moments we are being shaped and molded, claimed and transformed by the power of God. In these moments, we remember that we are people of Epiphany, who have ,in viewing the light of the Christ child, been given new eyes through which to see the world, and we will never be the same.