“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Isaiah 60:1)
Saturday is Epiphany, the day when the church recognizes the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. In our house we set up the nativity scene in Advent, with Mary and Joseph and the animals at the manger, but with Jesus hidden, and the 3 kings far across the room. Each day the kings move a little closer. Baby Jesus arrives on Christmas day, of course, and the kings with their camels and gifts show up on January 6. In some cultures, January 6 is the day of pageants and gift-giving. Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, celebrates “Three Kings Day,” and the three kings are featured in much of the holiday decorations and pageantry.
Although there are plenty of legends about the Wise Men, (including names, national origin, occupation and other back stories), we know very little about them. Some speculate that they were astrologers, some that they were scholars, some that they were royal advisers. All we know of them is found in Matthew 2: 1-12. Interestingly, in the passage in Matthew they are not called kings. Just “wise men from the east.” Nor is their number established as three. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, calls them a “band of scholars.” The only kings in this passage in Matthew are King Herod, the villain, and “king of the Jews,” the moniker that the baby Jesus would grow into, in contrast to Herod, Caesar and all the other earthly monarchs.
The story of the wise men visiting Jesus is satisfying. They learn what they need to from Herod, they find and honor the baby Jesus and his family, and then they outfox Herod by not returning to reveal to him the baby’s location. And if that were all that it were, we could smile and say, “Whew! That was a close one.” But it doesn’t stop with the wise guys getting away undetected and Jesus safe and sound. King Herod goes on the rampage, ordering the death not just of one, but of all the babies in greater Bethlehem, not unlike the Pharaoh, who so many centuries earlier, ordered the death of all the male Hebrew babies.
Although Jesus and his family escaped the death sentence, unlike so many others, they did so by being refugees in a foreign country until the death of Herod. Thus in Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus began his life as a displaced person, a refugee, living off the kindness of strangers in a strange land—certainly a hint to modern Christians on how we might treat refugees.
Each of the Gospels tells the story a bit differently. We learn twists and emphases from what each tells us (including Mark, who starts right out with Jesus the adult, and John, who begins with the Logos.)
James C. Howell, in reflecting on the visit of the wise men, notes that the change of route that they took on the way back is what happens when we meet Christ—things change. He quotes T.S. Eliot’s poem,
‘The Journey of the Magi,’
“We returned to our places…
But no longer at ease here,
In the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”
“A strange, unfamiliar road is now our path—but the road is going somewhere.”
Epiphany brings our marching orders on this new path. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA