The month of Advent anticipations and the 12 days of Christmas celebrations have come and gone. The Advent wreath is in storage and the Christmas tree has been recycled.
Now comes the important and hard work of making our celebrations meaningful.
If what we have been doing for the last eight weeks – awaiting the Christ and celebrating his birth – have been an early winter ritual, then “Seasons Greetings” is all we have to say.
If, however, our waiting and rejoicing have been spurred forward by a hope for transformation, then “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” will point us down another road.
Epiphany Sunday traditionally has been the time to focus upon the arrival in Bethlehem of the magi. They were not kings.
At least, they were Babylonian astrologers, anxious to discern an anomaly in the night sky. At most, they were a way for Matthew to confess that the good news of the birth of the Messiah was, yes, good news for all of the nations of the earth.
Most Christians in the world treat Epiphany, not Christmas, as the time for gift-giving, following the examples of the magi in Matthew’s Gospel.
There is more to the visit of the wise men than gift-giving, however. Matthew’s Gospel tells of the coming of the magi as a bright exclamation point, which begins to focus God’s light that pierced the darkness at creation and continues to pierce the darkness today.
Words of the prophet Isaiah of the restoration of Jerusalem following the exile in Babylon come first to our ears on Epiphany Sunday. “Arise, shine; for your light has come” (Isaiah 60:1), the prophet declares. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3).
These words of the prophet are the rumblings of a minority conviction that will grow into a majority pronouncement by the time New Testament writers reflect upon them.
Isaiah’s hope that the “nations shall come to your light” is a transforming hope that suggests that the grace of God is too large for any one people to claim it as their own. The light of God, the grace of God is for all nations, for all peoples.
The psalm this Epiphany Sunday has the hard edge of the words of a prophet too, although in the attitude of prayer.
The psalmist pleads for the king, that God may give him a heart for justice and righteousness (Psalm 72:1-4) and that God will grant the king the power to nourish and transform his world “like the rain that falls on mown grass, like showers that water the earth” (Psalm 72:6).
The psalmist has the hope that “all kings [of the earth may] fall down before” God’s king, “and give him service” (Psalm 72:11).
In the attitude of prayer, the psalmist concedes that it is rare that a king of Israel would embody the hopes of righteousness and justice and leadership, but the psalmist still clings to the hope for such a transformation to appear.
There is a “mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9), the epistle for Epiphany Sunday declares.
In a sentence, the mystery is revealed: “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6).
For New Testament writers, including the Epistle to the Ephesians, a Gentile was simply a non-Jew.
Said another way, Gentiles were the people of all nations beyond the historic traditions of Judaism.
Paul writes to the Ephesians with the good news that the “mystery hidden for ages” is that God always has been intent on transforming “the nations” by grace.
Pause to hear the echoes of the prophet and the psalm on this Epiphany Sunday. The good news is that the gospel is for all people.
The Gospel reading reminds us that the light of God always pierces the darknesses of humanity.
“Wise men from the East” arrive in Jerusalem, seeking “the child who has been born king of the Jews” because they have “observed his star at its rising” (Matthew 2:1-2).
Following a bright star led the magi into the darkness of King Herod’s court. The irony is plain and impossible to miss: The magi stand before the sitting “king of Jews” in hopes of finding direction to birthplace of the true King of the Jews.
Scripture makes no claim that the magi are royalty; it does not even count them. Tradition, however, has transformed the star-following magi of Matthew into the “three kings.”
Perhaps it is the strong echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3) that nudges us away from a literal reading of Matthew’s story.
Kings or not, the magi embody the hope of prophet and the psalm, and the exclamation of the epistle that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6).
The Gospel reading concludes with the note that after the magi expressed their joy at finding the Christ child, “they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12).
They demonstrated their joy through adoration and left behind their “gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 12:11). Then “they left for their own country by another road.”
With 2019 now upon us, we should yearn to find another road. The old road of fear, suspicion and exclusion is not working. It never does, for long.
We need another road that passes through the valleys of hope, peace, joy and love.
We need another road that takes us to the peaks of embracing a vision where all nations – all peoples – realize the promises of God are not only for the few.
Professor emeritus of religion in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He served as chair of the department of religion from 2000-2021.