If you can recall the song The Twelve Days of Christmas, you know that today is the twelfth and final day of Christmas, a good day to take your tree down if you haven’t done so already.
Tomorrow is the feast of the Epiphany, originally the more important of the two holidays, long before the pagan solstice was baptized as Christ’s birthday in newly Christianized Europe. We still celebrate Christmas for the most part as a pagan holiday, which is all the more reason to recover the significance of this ancient feast of Epiphany and its deep meanings.
Epiphany brings to mind the visit of magi to see the infant Jesus. They were the last to arrive. They have been variously described as wise men or kings. What they really were was astrologers, not in the modern sense of predicting the future by the stars, but in the ancient manner of those who searched the stars for signs of occurrences on earth. That there were three of them comes from tradition (you will look in vain in the Bible for their number) and from the Bible’s mention of three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The claim that they were Kings is again from tradition and not from scripture. It makes reference to the Isaiah prophecy that “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Tradition even gives them names: Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, and identifies them with different races to symbolize the worship of all nations and peoples at the feet of the Christ child.
Where the shepherds in the Nativity story represent the poor and forgotten ones, the nobodies of the world, the magi represent the influential and powerful, the well–born and well-bred and well-educated. They are wise men. They go at first to Herod’s court to find this new–born king. Where better to find a Hebrew king than in the King’s court at Jerusalem? But as they soon learn, this is a different kind of a sovereign.
In this story Herod represents the world of power politics, where people and things are bought and sold. To him a new king is a threat to his sovereignty, and his search is a different one than the magi, he seeks Jesus not to worship him, but to kill him. Warned in a dream, the magi don’t go back to Herod with their news, but rather go “home by another way.”
This part of the Christmas and Epiphany story tells us that the birth of Jesus doesn’t remain the news of just those who were at his cradle, but spreads to all the world, good news for all people and nations. Christ is a light to the nations, a light to all those who sit in darkness and dwell in the shadow of death. And the Christmas story continues to be our story, the story that gives us our identity as a people who live by this story.
There are other stories to choose, of course. There is the story that advertising spends billions on, the story that tells us that the deodorant we use or the car we drive, or the beer we drink can provide us with an identity to live by. Christians still read and hear the Scripture story as a counter–story to the story the world listens to and hears. Christian identity is forged from this story, from hearing it in Word and Sacrament and attempting to live by its promise and hope, its love and grace.
The Apostle Paul refers to this Christian identity in Ephesians. From prison he tells how God has appointed him an apostle, that is a messenger, to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. He tells them that all the promises of God, before this only given to his people Israel, are now through Christ given to all. “Although I am the very least of all the saints,” he says, “this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety may now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 3:8–10)
Now these “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” that Paul refers to are spiritual forces that his first hearers believed ruled the universe and controlled their destinies. In our technological age we may feel that we have outgrown such concepts, but have we? How many feel that fate or some other power determines our destinies? How many read the daily horoscope as the key to unlocking one’s future? How many feel that great impersonal forces of history, and institutions like government, decisively influence how our lives will turn out? As we enter a New Year how many of us will stake our futures on the luck of a lottery ticket, the “wisdom” of the psychic friends network, or the fortunes of the stock market?
But the church is a community that believes that our future and the destiny of our world and the universe are in the hands of God and God alone. That the magi could read in the stars about the coming of Jesus tells us that his birth was not a private event but a cosmic one. It reminds us that the one who created the world is the same one who controls its ultimate destiny, and with it each of our destinies, both in life and in death. That is the truth that was long hidden, but now disclosed in the babe lying in the manger: Jesus Christ, God with us and for us. And like the wise men we worship before him; like the wise men we go abroad to tell the world this good news, and like the wise men we do well to recognize that this truth has its enemies. For when the wise men are warned in a dream to “go home by another way” the Greek word for “way” is the same one Jesus used when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Like the wise men, Christians are called to choose a different way than most of the world chooses. In this New Year let us seek the way of Jesus Christ who is the light of the world. The old Heidelberg Catechism that was used to teach generation after generation the Christian faith began with this question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” And the answer was “Jesus Christ is my only comfort in life and in death.”
How can this be? That Jesus is our only comfort in both life and in death? Because Jesus is not only Lord of history and nations, he is also our personal Lord and Savior. In the new year let us walk with him, pray to him, let him know our deepest longings and dreams, our aspirations and deep joys, as well as our aches and hurts, our disappointments and sadness. Let us know him personally, not merely as a religious idea or concept or ethic, but a living savior, master, and friend. Let us bring to him our hopes and fears, our prayers for the world. His light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never and will never overcome it. Amen.
(I also wrote a hymn called “They Sought Him by a Star” which can be found here. The photo is mine and the creche figures were hand-carved in Ecuador where I bought them on a mission trip.)