We are in Year C – the 3rd lectionary cycle. Year C unfolds in the new year by giving us the story of the Magi today, the baptism of Jesus next week, and according to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first miracle of changing water into wine on 1/20. Rev. Paul Nancarrow draws a connection to these 3 stories:
Epiphany arose in Alexandria, Egypt in the 2nd century, largely in response to Hellenistic religious festivals clustered around the winter solstice. Various Hellenistic & Gnostic rituals noted the position of the star, Sirius at the solstice, or drew water from the Nile for ceremonial washings and symbols of new birth, or celebrated the birth of the wine god Dionysos. Christians noted these themes, and fashioned their own feast by gathering stories of star, water, & wine connecting them to Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ baptism, & Jesus’ “first sign.” Because the day we celebrate Epiphany falls on a rare Sunday today, the lectionary gives us a rare opportunity to observe the elements of the original ancient Epiphany on the first 3 Sundays in January.
These Gentile astronomers or astrologists observe a star rising, and connect it to the birth of a holy one. They go to King Herod, asking, “Where is the Child?” hoping Herod can offer guidance. Instead, we witness an insecure king seized with fear. This is the most dangerous kind of person who holds any kind of power: an insecure & fearful one, anxiously worrying about how to maintain power & privilege. Protecting these things demand a lot of energy. How dare these “wise ones from the East” have the audacity to show up at HIS palace, and ask him, the king for directions to the “real” King!
He turns to the elite religious establishment, the chief priests & scribes, to help him figure out where this dangerous baby has been born. They recognize the answer from the prophet Micah & 2nd Samuel:
the one who is to rule, the gentle shepherd king, will come, not from Jerusalem, but from off the beaten path, the village of Bethlehem.
The wise men apparently miscalculated by 9 miles.
Herod then calls for a secret meeting, and pretends to want to assist the magi. Insecure people survive, even thrive, on secrecy & deception. Herod deceives these magi by tricking them into giving him information about when Jesus was born. Herod tells them Bethlehem is where they’ll find this king, and deceives them again by making an innocent enough request.
“Go & search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
All the right words come out of his mouth, but we know from the text that cruelty & murder live in his heart.
Kathryn Matthews asks a curious question in her research of this text: Did these Visitors from “the East” also bring up haunting memories of Israel’s past of being conquered at different times by the rising empires of Assyria, Babylon, & Persia (in what is known today as Iran & Iraq). Do the foreign visitors from these particular places provoke a different sense of fear & uneasiness. Matthews invites A pause at the beginning of a new year – How might our own past history as a nation help us ponder the meaning of visitors from one of the places we seem to fear most in the world?
In a curious twist, could these Magi have been influenced by the Babylonian Jewish community – those Jews who chose to stay in Babylon 400 years earlier, even after the Exile ended and Jeremiah had called people to come back to Jerusalem to plant and to build homes? These foreign travelers experience divine revelation through a bright star & a baby’s birth, among a poor Jewish family. After the Magi reach Bethlehem, they find the child, and are overwhelmed with joy. They offer their gifts of gold, frankincense & myrrh– and pay him homage. The journey of the magi reminds us that revelation or Epiphanies are given to those beyond ethnic & religious boundaries, to all the peoples of the world, inviting us to celebrate the many faces of God, found in many religious pathways.
One of the themes of Matthew 2 is about being guided geographically & spiritually by dreams. A dream alerts the Magi that Herod intends to harm Jesus. Taking the dream seriously of revealing divine wisdom just as the star had done, they detour around Jerusalem & Herod’s vindictiveness and return home by another way.
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated.
In one of the most terrible accounts in Scripture, Herod orders the murder of infant boys, the slaughter of the innocents to get rid of this potential rival. Countless others would suffer & die as a result of Herod’s jealousy, demonstrating what fear & insecurity, arrogance & greed for power can do. By recognizing Herod’s deception, the Magi decide it would be unjust to report back to Herod and serve as his enforcers. The story of Jesus continues because of these holy non-collaborators. Dr. John Pilch writes:
The Magi represent a long-standing resistance to Western Roman imperialism.
A meme that has been going around FB: Civil disobedience lies at the heart of the Epiphany story: The magi recites an unjust order from a vindictive tyrant. Instead, they defy him. May we do likewise.
Fortunately, for the Holy Family, Joseph is warned in a separate dream to flee to Egypt, away from violence in their own country, to flee as political refugees & asylum seekers, depending on the hospitality of strangers. Bruce Epperly –
The holy family’s arrival in Egypt may have been viewed as one more Jewish immigrant mouth to feed. While they may have found people of their own ethnic background as today’s immigrants also do, they were no doubt looked upon as foreigners, outsiders, unwelcome. The flight of the holy family is a reminder that forced immigration – political or economic – is part of God’s ongoing revelation. While we need to be a “nation of laws,” we are also compelled by scripture to greet immigrant children and families with hospitality – welcoming them with clothes & meals, rather than alien invaders. They too are following stars & are inspired by dreams – of survival, a better life for their children, & peaceful communities.
This story though ancient, is not so ancient at all, but plays out every day. Tyrants still rage. Throughout human history, individuals & institutions have had to make risky decisions in response to unjust directives — even when framed, “for the good of country.” Resistance can take many forms: dissent, protest, civil disobedience, declining to participate. To not serve as enforcers of unjust policies. To be holy non-collaborators. Can we do all we can to protect the vulnerable — even as the Magi did by sidestepping a tyrant who would destroy this precious holy one of God?
Perhaps sensing the goodness of the One True God, these Magi were trained to raise their eyes to the horizon of God’s activity in the world. So to are we called To keep our eyes and hearts open for signs of hope and to follow where it leads. Indeed, to make the journey. And to bear the gifts we have to offer. God is generous with revelation or Epiphany, and desires that we – like the magi – keep our eyes on the heavens, looking for stars to guide us beyond our comfort zones to discover and grow from our encounter with divine light.
The Magi came, asking, “Where is the child?”
by Rev. Stephen Garnaas Holmes
I will be your wise one, led by wisdom and discernment,
your star, not mine.
I am a sovereign of my own choices, among your royal priesthood.
I offer you my power.
You are the star I follow, with my eye on your light every day.
I am always seeking, never too complacent to ask, to observe,
to discern, to wonder,
looking for your light in this world, in those I meet, in my own dark sky.
I am not deterred by weariness, the unknown,
the strangeness, the settledness of others.
I seek the child, the tender, the hope, the small amid the strong and violent.
I bear valuable gifts. This is the reason I am in this world.
I kneel and offer treasure, every day.
I know my quest threatens the powers of might,
and I am not afraid, and do not collude with them.
I am not afraid to find another road,
always seeking, open to the new. Lead me.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
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.
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.