In the west, today is the Day of the Epiphany. An epiphany is an unexpected experience of an enlightenment, a new and deeper understanding of life. When the ‘wise men’ or Magi visited Jesus, they had an epiphany, and became even wiser.
In the eastern churches, Christmas begins today at sunset. Happy Christmas to brothers and sisters who are about to celebrate this sacred Day!
It might have been just someone else’s story;
Some chosen people get a special king,
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In palaces, found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice. — Malcolm Guite, ‘The Magi’ in Sounding the Seasons: Seventy sonnets for the Christian Year
We call them ‘wise men’, but my guess is that most of us would discount their wisdom today. It was the so-called wisdom of astrology, seeing signs in the heavens, trying to predict the future from the wanderings of planets through the constellations. Yet this time, it seemed to have worked.
We call them wise men, but the name the scriptures give them is ‘magi’. Magi is like our words magic and magician. I’m going to call them magi.
The magi weren’t what we think of as magicians; they were part of a Persian priestly group whose astrological wisdom brought them mostly respect, but also some mockery.
We know the story, how they saw a star that they interpreted to foretell the birth of a new king in Judea. So they followed this strange new star to—well, not to little Bethlehem. Not at first. When they arrived in Judaea, they went to the logical place, the place you’d expect a new king to be born. They went to the big smoke. Jerusalem.
And in the big smoke, they saw the big man himself. Herod.
Who else would know about a new king, right?
But Herod didn’t have a clue. So he called his own wise men, the chief priests and the scribes. They told him that (according to the prophet Micah) Bethlehem was the place to go. Yet they weren’t interested in actually going themselves.
(Have you ever noticed that? And how often do we value ‘Bible knowledge’ for its own sake? Bible knowledge is meant to lead us to love God and love our neighbour. As St Paul says, ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up’. (1 Corinthians 8.1b) Let’s seek knowledge that leads us to love others more.)
So, Herod’s wise men nominate Bethlehem as the place for a new king to be born; perhaps though, I’m doing them an injustice saying they couldn’t be bothered to go there themselves. Maybe they were too frightened to go. Matthew tells us that when the magi came to ask Herod about the new king, ‘Herod … was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him’.
Why was ‘all Jerusalem’ afraid? They knew what Herod would do if there was someone claiming to be king. You see, Herod was king only so long as he pleased the Roman occupying powers. He was a puppet, a king in name only. His position could always become unstable. He had killed members of his own family in order to stay on the throne, so he wouldn’t let a little thing like an upstart from tiny Bethlehem overthrow him. He’d get rid of him.
So the magi came to Herod, and went on to Bethlehem thinking what a good chap he was. And in Bethlehem they found Jesus.
The Adoration of the Magi, c.1501–6, Francisco Henriques and Vasco Fernandes (Grão Vasco) in Williams, Jane, The Art of Advent: A Painting a Day from Advent to Epiphany (Kindle Locations 1183-1185), SPCK, Kindle Edition.
Let’s look at this painting, which dates from the very early 1500s. I found it in in a book called The Art of Advent by Jane Williams, and I’m borrowing a bit from the book now.
The first thing to note is that there are four magi. How many magi were there? We haven’t a clue. The story tells of three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, so we assume three magi. But all we know is there were more than one.
I like that this painting has four magi. It unsettles us from the beginning.
And why should we be settled? After all, the magi are unsettled. The three who are standing are caught awkwardly in mid-action. And they’re looking a little startled.
Why shouldn’t they be? Here they are in their finery, which is remarkably clean considering they’ve trekked a long way to get here. But they’d have servants to keep their boots nicely shined and their hair so beautifully coiffed.
Yet while the magi have servants and look great, they are at a huge disadvantage here. One is doffing his cap, another kneeling in prayer.
Who is he kneeling before? A peasant woman with hair in easy-to-manage plaits, and a naked baby.
This is the King they came to see, and this King requires them to rethink everything.
For the purposes of this painting, Jesus is still ‘at home’ in the stable. (Though Matthew times the Magi’s visit later than the stable.) This baby needs no finery. His mother looks a little bored by the gifts, as if she’d rather a year’s nappy washing service thank you very much.
This baby is like no king they’d ever seen. But still, they would have gone and told Herod about him if they were not warned in a dream to dodge him on the way home. (How wise were they really? They may have known everything to do with the stars, but they were foolishly naive about power politics.)
It would have been quite a feat to go ‘home by another way’, with their large retinue of servants and hangers-on. But, the story goes, they managed it.
You know, I suspect they were going another way for the rest of their lives. To have seen the King they were seeking for in such humble surrounds would have turned their minds upside down. And our minds must also be turned upside down if we are to enter this King’s kingdom.
We too must go another way, and look for Jesus in unexpected places. People often speak of coming to church to recharge their batteries for the coming week. Friends, this service can’t recharge you for a whole week every week. Like the magi, we need to walk another way each day. We are to look and listen for Jesus in everyday events. In ordinary life.
We may see Jesus in someone who is in need. We may hear Jesus in something an atheist or muslim friend says. We may meet Jesus sitting on the lap of a young woman with an easy-to-manage hairstyle. We may see Jesus on the streets. The King may be in any place, but especially in the lowest places.
Today is the Day of the Epiphany; an epiphany is an unexpected experience of enlightenment, of a new and deeper understanding of life.
Any day can bring us an epiphany, so long as our eyes and ears and hearts and hands are open.
This year, we are going to be looking at what it means to be sharing in God’s mission here in West End. Whatever it means for us to share in God’s mission here, going to today’s Herods for advice would be a dead end. We have to go another way to find the mission we are called to. We need to look lower, because Jesus certainly is there.