In the liturgy of the Christian year, Epiphany marks the end of the “12 days of Christmas,” commemorating Matthew’s report of the visit of the magi to Bethlehem to pay their respects to the new “king of the Jews.”
Probably not by coincidence, epiphany has also come to refer to an unexpected insight about something that has already been experienced or pondered, perhaps for some time.
The magi’s journey is a familiar part of the drama of the season: following the clue of a sign in the heavens to Jerusalem, the realm of Herod, a kind of puppet “king” under the control of the powerful Roman Empire; an inquiry about where the new child king might be; Herod’s anxiety that something was afoot that might challenge the security of his privileged position; the magi’s return home by another way in order not to cooperate with Herod’s devious plans.
Matthew’s gospel goes to considerable length to connect the birth of Jesus with the covenant history and promise of Israel.
From Matthew’s genealogy that traces the ancestry through Joseph to David to Abraham, to the frequency of his observations – “This was done to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet” – he was clearly making a case for Jesus’ connection with the faith of Israel.
But then he introduces the magi – foreigners perhaps only indirectly acquainted with the history and traditions of Judaism – scholars of their own time and place willing to respond to a calling that beckoned them to venture beyond the comfort and security of their lives to a foreign place to investigate the workings of a foreign God.
This calling pulled them beyond the boundaries of what they already knew to a new frontier of thinking.
They came, they saw and they returned home with a new way of seeing that quite possibly changed their world forever, probably a little bit at a time.
But their presence in Matthew’s account offers an additional point as well. Their “epiphany” expands the horizon of the significance of the Bethlehem child beyond the world of Judaism, in which it is deeply rooted, to include the human family beyond those boundaries, and to include a future far beyond their present.
Travel in those days was risky, and their destination was not certain, but the magi followed the star because something in them told them there was more to the mystery of life yet to be revealed; and they were willing to venture forth in faith to see what it was.
Our journeys to Bethlehem and back home this year will most likely not be geographical ones, but they are no less risky.
The journey to a new way of seeing and thinking is often as uncomfortable and frightening as any wilderness that geography can provide. The magi remind us that Epiphany is a boundary-breaking realization of the significance of something: “This is much bigger than we thought.”
Several friends experienced Christmas this year for the first time as grandparents, and it is always fun to watch the transforming effect of that experience in both its superficial and profound ways.
Each generation, it seems, has its own “epiphany” in the Bethlehems of our own times and places.
I remember as a new parent more than 40 years ago having a new sense of understanding the impact of God’s incarnation in the life of a newborn, with all its possibility and promise. A more profound expression of creativity I could not imagine.
Now, watching from the perspective of grandparenthood as those children do their own parenting, I still am moved to reverence at the gift of life and its possibilities.
But I wonder more than I did then about the kind of world that will be theirs to live in, and I often worry about the future of the deeper human realities that will accompany their journey into a world of increasing discovery.
Will community among the diverse human family become more healthy or less? Will there be more bridges across the chasms that separate us, or will the barriers grow higher?
Will they be victimized by the demagoguery of those like Herod, who claimed to be a “leader of the Jews” while doing the bidding of the Empire, and who seek popular support by appealing to fears and uncertainties? Or will they, like the magi, “go home by another route” with their vision of the world changed by their own epiphanies?
What kind of light does this Epiphany shine upon a future that we will not see but to which we are profoundly connected by the dreams we have for our grandchildren and their grandchildren?
Will an ethic based on this Epiphany lead us to make decisions that will support a sustainable world of hope and possibility that we want for them, or will our decisions be based on a desire for a world we think we are entitled to now?
Will we stop by Herod’s on the way home from Christmas, because of the party he no doubt will throw for us, or will we go home by another route?
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).