Psalm 72.10 The kings of Spain and the of the islands will
offer him gifts; the kings of Arabia and Ethiopia will bring him
The Christian tradition is
bedecked with images relating to the Epiphany - astrologers, miraculous
stars and the like. It can be hard to reach beyond popular religion and
discover meaning truly relevant to us in these far-distant times.
Peering back through twenty centuries to the time when Matthew's account
of three visitors from the East who came to venerate the baby Jesus
presents us with an enduring lesson.
The Christmas stories are vivid and convincing - but they are not "what
really happened". They contain a wealth of detail, telling an interesting
tale of events which Christians for centuries have rightly thought of as
world-shaking. The author of Matthew's Gospel recalls Psalm 72 to enliven
and support his story of the three men (actually magoi
or "wise men" in the Greek text - not kings) who came to offer the holy
child their gifts. Where he got his story from is buried in the sands of
time. Wherever it came from, all reputable scholars agree that the account
upon which the feast of the Epiphany rests isn't history.
The epiphany of Jesus is, literally, his "manifestation" to the world.
The early Church would have thought this an entirely natural way of
perceiving Jesus. He was the great King who would one day bring God's rule
to the earth. Just as new-born kings of the day were shown to the people
to prove that an heir existed, so too Matthew portrays Jesus being shown
to the nations of the world.
The Epiphany began to be observed as a feast in the 3rd and 4th
centuries. For a thousand years before that the Greek and Roman religions
had produced a multitude of stories about gods showing themselves to the
world in various guises. Thinking like this was natural to people of the
times. For them, heaven and earth were separate parts of a total reality.
One part consisted of the world we all know. The other heavenly part was
constantly bursting into our world. When heaven comes into our world, they
thought, we learn more about God.
Today it's much more difficult to perceive the world in this way. We
can't easily - if at all - think of Jesus as God "shown forth". The
miracles which the Epiphany story uses don't seem to happen nowadays. We
are more earth-bound than our predecessors. Heaven no longer bursts into
our world as our predecessors thought it did into theirs.
Is it possible to make sense of the Epiphany in the 21st century?
Matthew introduces the Magi. Luke's story tells of shepherds (and,
naturally for his audience) of angels. The common factor in both tales is
that the visitors are people who would not have been socially acceptable
in the Jewish society in which Jesus lived. The Magi were foreigners - in
effect, they were untouchables. Shepherds were shunned because they were
often unable to purify themselves to meet standards of Jewish ritual
In the characters of the Magi and the shepherds, the stories preserve
an early and absolutely fundamental theme of the Jesus of history. He
taught that everyone on earth is acceptable to God. Differences of tribe,
nationhood and race are of no account to God, said Jesus. When religion
puts up barriers between the "good" and the "bad" God passes through them
as though they don't exist. Nothing can separate us from the love of God,
for whom there is neither Christian nor non-Christian, sinner nor saved,
Church nor non-Church.
So even though these stories are not "what really happened", they
preserve and bring to life the ministry of Jesus. Provided we recognise
them for what they are - delightful and meaningful stories - we can also
recognise that God is "shown forth" in today's Epiphany just as he is in
Matthew's account. For ourselves as individuals, we gain a new lease on
life as we reaffirm that we are personally part of God's scheme of things.
For ourselves as part of humanity, we gain our rightful place when we
affirm that everyone without exception is loved and accepted by God.
The child who, in the stories of Matthew and Luke, was first shown to
untouchables and outcasts, is also shown to us.