Yesterday in many western churches we celebrated Epiphany. First, Epiphany is a wonderful word meaning a sudden manifestation – kind of the ultimate version of “Wow!” With few exceptions, people have forgotten what the word means. One such exception includes Simpsons’ fans who know its meaning from one particular episode.
However, the word really means that suddenly a person becomes aware and understands something outrageously profound. We were all taught that Archimedes stepped into a tub of water, realized that his body displaced an equal quantity of water and was so excited that he ran through the streets naked and shouted, “Eureka!” meaning “I have found it!” Actually the story changed a little over time, but that’s the gist of an earthly epiphany.
The Epiphany we celebrated yesterday commemorated when the Wise Men followed the star to find young Jesus. Like Archimedes story, it has lost some of its meaning, particularly since some of the good parts of the story aren’t documented in the Bible. The Biblical account doesn’t go into detail, being focused on teaching the religious lesson rather than being a mere history book.
The Wise Men are sometimes referred to as “Magi,” the plural of the noun “Magus.” A Magus was a member of the Zoroastrian priestly caste of the Medes and Persians. It also refers to a sorcerer or magician. Some modern Christians might have problems with that.
The Magi of the Epiphany followed one of the most ancient religions on earth. Some claim that some or perhaps even many of its beliefs are consistent with Judeo-Christian beliefs. Persia, from whence the Magi came is in what we now call Iran, and as such is very close to the “cradle of civilization.” An ancient culture with ancient beliefs in an ancient territory. One might even think that true beliefs had been handed down from the very first interaction between God and man to these people even before He revealed himself to others. There is no specific biblical reference to point to this, but it is not impossible.
The Magi studied the stars, not for understanding as scientists do today, but as astrologers do, to try to predict the future. Again, this is something that might be troubling to some Christians. Somehow in that far off land it apparently became a belief that when a great king was born a new star would appear in the sky*. The Magi saw something in the heavens that was not normal. It could have been a comet or a supernova. It could have been a plain old star from far enough away that the light just started reaching the earth. Since God is free to put anything in His heavens that He sees fit, we don’t need a detailed explanation – we just know that He took care of it somehow. However, when this something in the Magi’s night sky caught their attention, they began to search for this great king.
It’s possible that the Torah was known to these people, which would have made the search easier since there were so many predictions about the Messiah. It’s possible that they believed they could determine the position of the star relative to the known world. However it happened, without proper maps, GPS or probably even a compass they managed to get into the right neighborhood, more or less. They then asked around to see if they anyone could help them in their search. They took the logical route and went to the known King, probably assuming that he had recently added a son. As a matter of fact, King Herod was quite surprised and not at all pleased with the thought of someone interfering with his hold on the throne. He reacted in typical fashion and ultimately ordered the murder of those boys who were born during the time that the Magi first saw the star.
I find the gifts that they brought as especially interesting. Gold – a gift to provide for the King during his life. Myrrh, a perfume used when preparing the body after death. Frankincense, a “delightful aroma” that rises up symbolizing that which is pleasing to God. These mesh so well with the blessing of a messiah.
He became man and dwelt among us.
He died for us.
God Himself said He was pleased.
And, of course, He rose up – both from the dead and in the Ascension.
So after the festivities of Christmas and New Years Epiphany may not seem like such a big deal.
But it really is.
* Can you imagine Persian or Median kings coming to the Zoroastrian priests when they had a son and asking if a star had appeared? I can picture the magus on duty pointing up somewhere and saying something like, “Yes, your highness. It’s that one over there!”