Message by Jason Storbakken
Today is Epiphany.
Christmastide is over. We are in a new year and a new season.
We have concluded the Christmas story and have moved into the Epiphany.
Epiphany, sudden manifestation or perception, illuminating discovery, realization.
Two years have passed. We have left behind the stable and manger; the fearsome angels and shepherd-kings have departed.
Jesus is now a toddler – he’s learned to walk and is developing language. Mary and Joseph and their toddler, once scandalized by Jesus’ illegitimate birth, are now about to face an even crueler reality.
A strange star appears in the heavens. And a next cast of characters takes stage. The first we meet is Herod, vassal king of Judea. His power comes from Rome, yet he was raised Jewish. And the other characters, Mary, Joseph, the magi, are far from the center of any perceived power – they are on the margins of empire and society.
The magi enter the court of Herod, and they are the first to speak.
But who are the magi? The biblical narrative doesn’t give us many details about them. We know they come from the East, most likely Persia. It doesn’t say how many there were, although we assume three because of the number of gifts presented to the Christ-child.
Some translations refer to these men as kings or wise men, but magi is the most literal translation. The word magi is an ancient word with roots in an archaic Persian language. In ancient Eastern texts, it refers to a priestly caste within Zoroastrianism – an ancient religion, and the first known monotheistic tradition.
Magi paid particular attention to the movement of the stars and other deep-sky objects. They were a combination of learned scientist and cultic astrologer. In the Bible, the word for magi is translated as sorcerer when describing “Elymas the sorcerer” in the Acts of the Apostles, and later, Simon Magus (or Simon the Magi) is considered a heretic.
These magi who visit the Messiah are not Jewish. They are considered to be the first non-Jews to bear witness that Jesus of Nazareth is Messiah. For this reason, in the first centuries of the church, Epiphany was considered one of the most important Christian holidays to non-Jewish followers of Christ.
Back in Herod’s court…
The magi speak: “Where is the child who has been born king… We have come to pay him homage.” This is also translated as “we came to worship him.” This word “homage” or “worship” both mean, in this context, to “express submission to political powers.” Essentially, homage or worship means to surrender one’s will to the higher will. And, in this case, this higher will is not Herod, vassal king of Judea, but the will of an infant.
The magi destabilize power with their astronomical predictions and prophetic proclamations. This is political. And Herod feels it. He calls all the chief priests and scribes and asks them where the Messiah is to be born. They quote Micah:
“Bethlehem in Judah! From you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people.” The true shepherd-king prophesied and promised has manifest. Divinity has entered into the mundane world, not from the center of power, but from the margins – to overturn and set all things right.
The words of the magi are threats to Herod’s power, but ever the crafty statesmen, Herod plays coy. He tells the magi, “Go, find the child. And when you find him, bring me word so I also may worship the Messiah.”
The magi follow the star and soon find Jesus. They enter the house and meet Mary and then give the Christ-child gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The scriptures say the magi were “overwhelmed with joy.” They bowed down and worshipped, submitting to the will of the Christ-child.
The Epiphany was realized, and angels again manifest, but this time in dreams. It doesn’t say how long the magi stayed near the Christ-child, but it was at least one night because they “received a dream not to return to Herod.”
And shortly thereafter an angel appears to Joseph in a dream: “Take your family and flee to Egypt. Herod seeks to destroy the child.” The magi have returned toward their homeland and the Holy Family has fled to Egypt.
Herod soon realizes he had been undermined by these marginal people – his authority, although endorsed by the powers of this world, is but a farce. And this Christ-child, although perceived as weak by the standards of the world is in truth the one who breathed creation into being.
Enraged, Herod orders that all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem be killed. Herod’s murderous violence is the standard response of the elite to a perceived threat.
As theologian and Union Seminary president, Serene Jones recently tweeted, “Civil disobedience lies at the heart of the Epiphany story: The magi receive an unjust order from a vindictive tyrant. Instead, they defy him. May we do likewise.”
Like the magi, and the shepherd-king, let us resist. Let us embrace those on the margins so that we might see the Christ-child in our society’s most vulnerable. Let us uplift the poor and scorned, so that emperors and social structures and walls might fall – and bridges be built and people come together, so that God might truly manifest brilliantly in each and all of our lives. Amen.