I gave this sermon/meditation at City Church of the Brethren in Goshen on January 2, 2022
Thanks for inviting me to join you today. I value and depend on both ecumenical and interfaith links. I have received your Women’s Caucus “Femailings” newsletter for years. Yvonne Riege joined me to carry out a Worship Renewal Grant with Goshen churches back in 2001. And I feel linked with Weybrights because John and I also lived in India for some years, decades ago. Further, Bill and I garden in plots next to each other at Greencroft.
Currently we US folk most likely recall the January 6 date for the take-over by rioters in the nation’s capital building. The intent a year ago countered the people’s vote being duly certified. But, in the Christian church January 6 has long been known as the date on which to celebrate Epiphany. Also known as the twelfth or final day of Christmas among western Christians, among Eastern or Orthodox Christians that 12th day is known as Christmas day.
Epiphany refers to a day or a season; it literally means “to show up.” For Christians, epiphany refers to events around the occasion when a number of magi “showed up” to find “the child” expected by Jews as their king. Magi, the plural of the Greek magoi, were high-ranking, priestly women or men known in part for their wisdom in relation to a night’s sky. We suggest, therefore, that the season of Epiphany reveals God’s appearing or reaching out to all people. It also notes those who suddenly are conscious of a great insight or revelation.
Those who knew the Hebrew text would have recalled details from prophets. Micah (5:2) had stated that “out of Bethlehem would come a governor who shall shepherd my people Israel.” From Isaiah (60:1-6) had come word about light to cover the darkness. Light has been a key symbol for most religious people. A key holiday celebrated from ancient times among Hindus for which lighted lamps line paths or rooftops is called Divali. Think also of how candles appear in places of worship as on your altar here. Prophet Isaiah expected people from a distant place, perhaps Sheba or a boundary of Arabia, to come to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense, the text states.
To have such magi “show up” in Bethlehem reminded those familiar with texts that God continued to act among them. Magi “from the east” were informed about lights of the heavens, not the Hebrew text. For them, a star with special features had significance, perhaps suggesting royalty. So, they sought counsel about scripture from Jews along their journey of likely several months’ time.
Anyone who pays close attention to Matthew’s text might apologize for details that tradition has instilled in us. We include three kings with our Christmas manger scenes. Just know that neither the number of those bringing gifts nor word about their being kings appears in the biblical text. But ideas have embellished the story through time. The idea of kings was added to tradition during the third or fifth century; they were first named Casper, Melchior & Balthasar in the seventh or eighth century. Further, Jesus was likely several months or more old when the star that guided the Magi group stopped over his home.
So, we preserve tradition when we sing Christmas carols. I encourage us to do so well-informed. We think that three people followed the star and arrived due to three gifts named. Orthodox Christians think that twelve magi arrived. Priestly Magi, women and men familiar with stars, likely journeyed in groups of more than three people. Astronomers known to serve rulers in the Persian Empire (modern Iran and Iraq), responded to divine action by journeying distances to explore unique stars, taking gifts in case they met someone worthy.
Astronomers have studied the mysterious, fabled Star of Bethlehem for centuries. Planet Juniper was known to have orbited around the sun in about 6 BCE (Before Common Era)) having disappeared before re-emerging in the eastern sky. Might there be ties, we ask? During the Middle Ages, peoples’ devotion to magi was most fervent. Accounts of the magi depicting non-Jewish worship of Jesus, Jesus’ baptism naming him as God’s son, and the wedding at Cana which reveals Jesus’ divinity all appeared often.
Also remarkable is an account of a Wisconsin PhD researcher named Molnar being hungry in his campus office on an August day of 1970. Finding a nearby vending machine jammed, he went home early to eat only to learn soon after that his office had gone up in flames. A stolen van had exploded outside his Hall, killing another researcher. Part of Molnar’s dissertation blew out of the burning building; he continued to pursue pioneering research on stars including Juniper history, we’re told.
Another theory is that among the remnant of Jews who stayed in Babylon when most returned after exile, some were interested in stars. A special star might have reminded such magi women and men of the fact that Jews anticipated the birth of a king. They could have followed a distinct star from heaven, connecting those two ideas. Ancient magi would have anticipated doing homage to a special child if found. Recall too that cruel Herod I, made king by the Romans for many years, caused diverse people to long for a royal change.
What we need to stress about Epiphany is how it conveys God’s design for all people to be welcomed as believers. Nudged elsewhere in texts by God, be open to welcome and value strangers, those different from you. Know that people of other religious traditions also have wisdom. Not only Jews, or not only Christians are included with God’s people. Yes, Jews were chosen primarily to tell others about God’s inclusive ways, not that they or Christians alone are chosen as followers.
Magi noted in Matthew 2 represent those different from Jews. They were most likely of sacred Zoroastrian background from the Persian Empire. Zoroastrian religion is one of the oldest religions in the world founded by prophet Zarathustra. He was thought to have been conceived in the womb of a 15year old girl. Like Jews, they opposed Roman rule and politics. Later known also as Parsi, some Zoroastrian roots emerged into Islam. A few more facts about Zoroastrians: their creator god is known as Ahura Mazda; their text as Avesta. Their key symbol, sacred fire, represents God’s light or wisdom. Their key motto is: “Good words, Good thoughts, Good deeds.”
Perhaps more comments about Matthew’s gospel are also pertinent. Written by a Jew for Jewish Christians, Jesus is shown as Israel’s Messiah whose ministry embraces all nations. It is the only gospel that refers to magi, those “learned, wise outsiders come to pay homage to an infant whose spiritual power surpassed theirs.” By the way, the latest edition of the NRSV Bible translation refers to magi, not wise men, in chapter 2 that we focus today. In the first two chapters of Matthew, “the child” rather than Jesus is mentioned eight times. Twice as often as the other gospels combined, it shows Jesus receiving worship, one of them here.
Also of interest is Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting titled “The Adoration of the Magi” from 1481. In the foreground are many people surrounding “the child.” In the background, behind Jesus, Mary and the Magi, are crumbling buildings and men fighting on horseback.” One observer thinks that the painter had understood the truth: “The Messiah comes into a world of chaos and decay which needs change.” How might you paint background for telling the story of Epiphany today? Keep in mind that imagination often shapes our understanding. So, how might you depict background of today’s politics with the “showing up” or coming of non-Christian star-gazers being warmly welcomed by God?
Since linked with a court, the Magi women and men were free to ask King Herod when they arrived in the capital Jerusalem: “Where is the child who is born king of the Jews?” Such a question threatened the despot who had no desire for kingly competition. But, acting interested, as if he didn’t know what had taken place just five miles away, Herod asked Jewish priests and scribes where. He falsely nudged the magi to find “the child” in Bethlehem and report back. He too could then worship that king, he implied.
Guided by the star that moved by then southwest, they rejoiced when it stopped over a given household in Bethlehem. Entering, they found Mary and the child. A cultural detail suggests that men would not have been alone with the mother. For a reason like that, we presume that the magi included women. Whether dark skinned to represent the diversity of the Gentile world, oriental, named Melchior or Magdaline, they all rejoiced to have achieved their goal.
Gratitude emerged through gifts from the East: precious metal of gold for a king, expressive of virtue; rich incense of frankincense, to represent wisdom for priests expressing prayer; and myrrh – sign of long life and healing, the spice sometimes used to embalm or anoint the dead. While gold came from the earth, both frankincense and myrrh came from trees – the former a white resin or gum from the bark that was fragrant when burned, the latter stripped from bark of a thorny, ten feet tall tree.
Working on this text, I recalled a children’s Christmas book titled The Three Beggar Kings, by Rosalyn Haskell Hall. It features a poor boy located in a small village in Europe, where Christmas was celebrated for twelve days. He persuades his parents to allow him on the twelfth night to check out and follow several poor workmen who dress up like kings of old to go around the village to gather food and coins for the needy. They offer him a bag for collecting goodies too. Imagine the spirit of Christmas that the child gains in the process. And consider his surprise when, on returning home, he recognizes the facial resemblance of the workmen kings on wood blocks just carved by his father. Just who were those workmen, he wonders!
So too do we confess just who “the child” of our text from Matthew is. As we close out another Christmas season, may we be ever sure that through God “the child” benefits not only Christians. Jesus the Christ ever taught about God’s welcoming kin-dom. Whether Zoroastrian or star gazers or people celebrating light in diverse forms, God among us welcomes all who seek to follow the Divine Source. May we keep alert to who may “show up” at our door. And keep alert to dreams that tell us who is worthy to follow in our day.
May we be faithful to sacred scripture, even more than to human tradition. May we rejoice as we journey toward Truth knowing that “this child” modeled for us the Way of the Epiphany star. May we be motivated to share God’s welcome to all during the year ahead.
Closing Blessing: People of God, I wish for you vision and wisdom to live like magi women and men. May you honor “the child’s” teaching to welcome kin, those known or different from you. May you relate to diverse folk as you live dreams that guide you through 2022.