Epiphany: of Stars, Wise Men, and the Insignificant

Epiphany. A word than means manifestation or revelation. The church celebrates today--after twelve days of Christmas--when the magi visited the young Christ-child and worshiped Him, when the Messiah was revealed to people from around the world.

We like to think of three men from eastern Asia who visit the stable with the shepherds and give the baby their gifts. Like the account of the Christmas story, a lot of what we picture happening isn't actually in the Bible. So, here's the text if you haven't read it recently:

Journey of the Magi by James Tissot,
from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
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.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Matthew 2:1-12, NIV (from BibleGateway.com)

Here's what I notice is different from what we typically think happened:

Epiphany stars at Abbey Way Covenant Church
  • The wise men weren't kings. Magi comes from the same root as magician; they were likely royal astrologers, Zoroastrians from Persia.
  • The Bible doesn't say there were three of them (the number comes from the gifts they bring).
  • The star first leads them to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem. 
  • Despite not being Jews and likely being Zoroastrians, they come to worship Jesus.
  • Herod knows this is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
  • All of Jerusalem was afraid at these events, not just Herod.
  • Still, it is Herod who sends the magi on to Bethlehem.
  • The star appears a second time. This time over Bethlehem.
  • Jesus is no longer at the stable in a manger. The text says He is at a house. Some scholars think He may have been two to four years old at this point.
  • The text says only Mary and Jesus are at the house, not Joseph.
  • God talks to these pagan magi in a dream.
So the story is a little different than often depicted. Sometimes I think it's good to let our stories be shaken up a little. The visit of these magi was a big deal. They showed us, right away in Jesus life, that the Messiah wasn't just for the Jews. This was big news (though many prophets said that the Gentiles would receive salvation as well) at the time. Judaism was very, well, Jewish-centric. But here we have pagan foreigners, likely adherents to another religion, recognizing Jesus as the king of the Jews and bowing before Him. That doesn't happen often to babies born in stables. 

They give the Christ-child three ordinary, yet unusual gifts. Gold is a gift for a king. Frankincense is a gift for a God, burned in worship, it's smoke symbolic of prayers going heavenward. Myrrh is an embalming oil used on the dead--a gift for a mortal (and not your usual gift for a baby). King, God, and suffering mortal. ("Glorious now behold Him arise / King and God and sacrifice.")

The story reminds us that God is the revealer. He gives epiphanies. We need to be seekers to notice them. He uses His creation (including stars, including us) to reveal Himself to others, to point them to Jesus. It reminds us that God uses the insignificant (including stars, including us) to reveal the magnificent. Think about it: the light from Proxima Centuri, the closest star to our sun, takes over four years to reach earth. If the star the magi saw was a regular star (not a comet or some other astronomical phenomenon), things had to have been in play years before Jesus was born for the magi to see it. If it was a star, it was one out of a billion. Nothing special, yet it was. God works ahead of events, putting things in motion to reveal Himself to those who are ready to find Him.

Mary was insignificant (and I'm sure she never expected magi, let alone shepherds, to show up to visit her son). The stable was insignificant. Bethlehem was insignificant. A wooden cross was insignificant. Bread and wine were insignificant. Yet God used them all to reveal his glory and love.

You and I are insignificant. But, if we're willing, we can be used in very significant ways.

A light has shone in the darkness. God-with-us has been revealed. Light still shines in the darkness: of our neighborhoods, of our work places, of our schools, of our homes, of our souls. Keep seeking: the presence of the King will be revealed.

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