Do you still have your Christmas decorations up? For you efficient ones, there is a tradition in some places which holds that it is bad luck to still have them up at Epiphany. But for the rest of us, perhaps they should still be up because the Christmas season ends with Epiphany. No doubt, you know the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but many of you may not know what it is referring to other than silly/extravagant gifts. The song is about the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany.
Western Christianity celebrates the holiday of Epiphany as the day when the magi arrive to find the baby Jesus in a house in Bethlehem. (Eastern Orthodox churches have a different understanding of Epiphany related to Jesus' baptism.) In the western church calendar, January 6th is Epiphany, but since not all church holidays fall on Sunday, you may have already celebrated it last Sunday or perhaps next Sunday (Epiphany Sunday). Also, January 5th is Twelfth Night, traditionally a feast night celebrating the end of Christmas. However, you may better know that name from Shakespeare's play than from any feasting practiced on the night of January 5th.
For those with decorations still up and specifically those who have a manger scene: Are there wisemen (magi) in your manger scene? Well, they really should not be there. According to scripture, the magi neither visit the manger nor arrive on the night of Jesus' birth. What most of us know as the Christmas story is really a mashup of the two different versions from Luke's and Matthew's gospels. (Mark and John contain no birth of Jesus story.) There are no magi told of in Luke, which is where the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the manger story are contained. Mathew has no journey to Bethlehem, manger, or shepherds.
Perhaps we can understand Matthew as a follow up to Luke's birth and manger account. In Matthew's telling, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are living in a house in Bethlehem. That is where the magi find the baby Jesus--in a house.
We do not know who the magi were or precisely from where they came. Despite hymns such as "We Three Kings," we do not know the number of magi who arrived at the house in Bethlehem. We also certainly do not know their names. The traditional names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar come from a sixth-century manuscript. The traditional number of "three" magi comes from the three gifts they present.
I have heard all kinds of jokes about the gifts to the tune of "frankincense, just what a baby needs?" Or "how about a blanket or diapers?" However, these are appropriate gifts for a king. And they most likely played a crucial role in the next, and unfortunately often ignored, part of the Christmas story which I will discuss in a future post.
All that Matthew says is that the magi came from "the East." But Matthew does tell us that they have observed a special star, so we know they were astrologers who saw meaning in the night sky. These clues have led many scholars to surmise that they were Zoroastrians who lived in the area that we now call Iran and had a learned class who studied the stars. Zoroastrians were also likely the first religion to fully develop the concept of monotheism and influenced the beliefs of Jews living in exile in Babylon (now Iraq) during the sixth century BCE. The Jews then passed the concept of monotheism on to Christianity and Islam.
The central importance of Epiphany for Christians is two-fold: First, the magi's coming to greet this child is a recognition of the nature of this baby. The nature of the gifts from the magi also represent this. This is no ordinary child as the night sky does not foretell typical births. For Christians, Epiphany is a celebration of the incarnation of God in this baby boy named Jesus. Second, no matter the religion of the magi, they were not Jews. Consequently, the magi's coming to celebrate the birth of Jesus is seen by Christians as an indication that the Jewish baby named Jesus will have an earthly mission that is not only for the Jews but also for Gentiles.
It is a shame that most Christians overlook this significant holiday. Epiphany is the holiday that celebrates who and for whom this baby was born: God incarnate comes for the whole world.
Have a Blessed Epiphany.
2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, "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." 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6'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.'"
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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." 9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Mathew 2:1-12 NRSV)