Last month, I wrote about several festivals celebrating the light during this season of winter in the northern hemisphere.
Western Christians continue to celebrate the light in the festival of Epiphany, the climax of our Christmas season. It comes after the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 5) and heralds the revealing of the light. The word Epiphany means “to reveal, make known.” On this day, the church celebrates the visit of the Magi from the East who bring gifts for the one who is born King of the Jews. As they worship, these outsiders “reveal” this child for who he is.
We don’t know much about the magi. Matthew doesn’t give many details—they came from the East after studying the skies, travelling to pay homage to the newborn King, and bearing three gifts which they present to the Child in the house where he lived in Bethlehem.
Tradition has ornamented the story greatly. The three gifts led to the tradition that there were three magi. We gave them names—Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—and called them kings, even though they were not. “We three kings of Orient are,” we happily sing.
What we do know is that they were outsiders. Matthew calls them magi, which likely means that they were astrologers, people who studied the skies and dabbled in horoscopes. To faithful Jews of the time, this was a horror, a blasphemy.
And what about those gifts? They seem very odd gifts to bring a baby. The old joke says that Jesus probably wanted a pony. But the magi bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They are symbolic gifts, metaphoric gifts fit for a Saviour who ends up on a cross. Gold is a gift fit for a king.
Frankincense, used in temple worship, is a gift fit for a priest. Myrrh is a spice used to anoint and prepare bodies for burial.
They followed a star, a common feature in literature of the age. Virgil reports that a star guided Aeneas to the spot where Rome should be founded. Josephus spoke of a star that stood over Jerusalem when the city was destroyed. Heavenly signs were commonly accepted as signs marking the births and deaths of great men.
Let me suggest that partly this story shows us the heart of God who has a boundless passion for the world. God yearns to draw everyone into his embrace, even these outsiders.
It also says something about being willing to follow the light. The church pairs this with a reading from Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and God’s glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
It’s easy to see why this reading was chosen to complement the magi. Like John’s Gospel, Matthew describes God who brings light into a dark and hurting world. God invites us to follow that light, for there we will find our healing and our hope. Indeed, God invites us to arise, to shine with the light, to be the light.
These days, we need that light more keenly than ever. There is great pain in our world. We are learning to live with an endemic. We have come through a brutal time of forest fire, flooding, and landslides. We are being displaced.
But we do not despair. We celebrate the birth of the Light of the World. We shine with that light as we live with compassion and grace. We live as people who are faithful to the Creator of all.