After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east
came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw
his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
--Matthew 2:1-2 NIV
In yesterday’s email, I explained the liturgical (or worship) calendar and its seasons. In my opinion, the seasons of the church year provide a way for us to emphasize the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ throughout the year. One of my favorite seasons is the season of Epiphany which begins on the Day of Epiphany (today, January 6) and runs until Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent.
Unfortunately, I have found that Epiphany gets short shrift, because it comes so soon after Christmas and the celebration of New Year’s Eve and Day. I know from my perspective as a minister I’m usually worn out after the busyness of Advent and Christmas. Similarly, church leaders understandably don’t think much about planning for Epiphany during the holiday season stretching from Thanksgiving until the end of the year. It’s a shame Epiphany gets so little attention.
Why are We Talking About the Wise Men Almost Two Weeks After Christmas?
In most nativity sets, angels, shepherds and wise men appear in addition to the holy family. At most Christmas Eve services, scripture passages are read from the Gospel of Luke which tells about the shepherds, the angels and the Christ child born in a manger, as well as the Gospel of Matthew which tells about the visit of the Magi who follow the star to find the Christ child. It’s no wonder that in most folks’ minds the Wise Men belong with the shepherds at the manger, but when we read the stories in Matthew and Luke, we find two very different accounts.
In Luke’s account, due to a Roman census, Joseph takes a pregnant Mary from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. There they can’t find rom in an inn, so Jesus is born in a stable and laid in a manger. Angels announce the news to shepherds who show up to worship the Christ child.
Meanwhile, in Matthew, it appears Joseph and Mary are living in Bethlehem (not Nazareth) and there is no census. Magi, probably Persian astronomers, see a star indicating a new king will be born, so they follow it to Judea. They go to the capital city Jerusalem expecting to find a new king but are informed they need to go to Bethlehem. The current occupant of the throne urges them to come back and tell him where the child is, but after they visit the holy family, they are warned in a dream to go home a different way. Similarly, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee with his family. King Herod massacres all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two. The holy family escapes to Egypt and only after Herod is dead, do they settle in Nazareth.
Even though the two stories have been combined in Christian tradition and practice, only in Luke’s Gospel is Jesus’ birth mentioned. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has already been born some time earlier. So, a separate day was set aside to commemorate the appearance of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi. The star which they follow becomes the symbol of the season and its themes of light and God’s self-revealing which occurs in Jesus Christ.
What Does the Word Epiphany Mean?
Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “a sudden manifestation or appearing.” In Greek literature it often referred to the breaking of dawn or an appearance of one or some of the gods. It occurs in the Greek New Testament (2 Timothy 1:10) to refer to Christ’s coming and was used in church tradition to refer to the light of the world coming to Gentiles, as in the story of the Magi.
Epiphany is a Bigger Deal Outside of White American Protestantism
When I served a church on Long Island, New York, I remember attending the first of many interfaith celebrations around the end of the year. I was familiar with Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but there I first heard of Three Kings Day. Three Kings Day is Epiphany, January 6, and it is a significant holiday in Latinx and Hispanic cultures. (I feel the need to clarify that Matthew does not say the Magi were kings nor does it say there were three of them, just more than one. Calling them kings came later.)
The celebration of Epiphany or Three Kings Day takes many fun forms in various cultures. Latinx and Hispanic children place their shoes outside their doors the night before and wake up to find gifts from the kings/Magi in them. The children also leave out grass or hay for the camels to eat! In western European countries, children go door to door in groups of three to receive candy or pastries from neighbors. In Ireland, Epiphany was known as “women’s Christmas” when women got the day off from their usual family duties—imagine that, one entire day off a year! In England and Wales, the night before Epiphany was the last night of Christmas or Twelfth Night, a night spent playing pranks and drinking wassail (hence the Christmas song “Here We Go A-wassailing”). In many countries in Europe and Latin America, a king cake is baked (similar to king cakes made during Mardi Gras) with a bean or an almond inside it. The child who gets the piece with the bean or almond becomes king or queen for a day!
What Does it Mean for Us?
In Protestant churches, Epiphany Sunday is celebrated the first Sunday after the Day of Epiphany. It’s a time to tell the story from Matthew 2 of the Magi visiting the Christ child. I make a point of commemorating the special Sunday, because it’s message that Christ is for all people is one that must continually be proclaimed. This isn’t just an issue of ancient divisions of Jew and Gentile or Christian and “Pagan,” but rather a reminder to all Christians who get a little too comfortable in their faith. Just as God was at work in the lives of some Persian astrologers, whom nobody really expected to show up and worship the Messiah, so also God is at work outside the church, out in the world in all kinds of ways we religious people don’t expect. Just when we think we have God all figured out, God defies our expectations and reveals God’s love for all people in some manner we would never have seen coming.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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