The Feast of the Epiphany comes at that time of the year when, for most people, the magic of Christmas has worn off. Last night was Twelfth Night, so the decorations are down and you are left with pine needles or glitter in the carpet (which you’ll still be finding in July!) and forlorn trees awaiting the recycling lorry. In one of my Christmas sermons I mentioned cards and their range of pictures and designs – robins sitting atop red pillar boxes, warming pictures of choirs entering churches, and snow-covered thatched cottages of a bygone era that was never as quaint or cosy as the images make out. Then, of course, there are the portrayals of the Holy Family. In many of them, Jesus is born in a clean-swept stable, so the birth process is sanitised, and poverty romanticised. Today, we reach another familiar Christmas card scene: the wise men, often depicted as oriental kings, or mysterious astronomers or astrologers – travellers from afar. As T.S. Eliot wrote in his famous Epiphany poem, ’they came late’ for the birth, and their arrival, in folklore, extends a one-day birth announcement into a twelve-day religious festival. Many scholars have suggested they came eighteen months to two years after the birth.
Traditionally, the coming of the wise men marks the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. The word ‘Epiphany’ means ‘manifestation’, or ‘appearance’, declaring that it is now clear who Jesus is – for everyone. But the meaning of the story, told in just a few verses in the Gospel according to Matthew, is far from clear. First, the ‘wise men’ are not called that: the Greek word describing them is ‘Magi’, an ancient Persian priestly caste skilled in astrology and magic. Second, there is no mention of their number: ‘three’ is deduced from how many gifts they bring – gold, frankincense and myrrh – but there could have been two, or considerably more than two. Third, these Magi are on a quest, and the science of their craft is far from precise. Following a star they have seen in the East, they stop at Herod’s palace, the logical place to look for a new ruler. But Jesus is not there; the Magi must continue their journey and search elsewhere. But what they lack in discernment they make up for in persistence, and they eventually come to the stable and present their gifts.
As with all the stories surrounding the first Christmas, it is important to ask why they were told. Myth is the poetry of truth, and the story of the Magi gives us a wonderful insight into how the early Church understood the significance of the birth of Jesus.
For example, how does Jesus come to be recognised to the extent that people start to worship him? In his adult years friends and acquaintances look at him and ask, ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son?’ For them, there is nothing special about this young man. And in terms of the story of his birth, life goes on at the inn that was too full to accommodate a pregnant woman and her new husband. Did anyone even remember the incident? Recognition of Jesus is gradual. Not everyone sees at once, and by Matthew’s time there were still many who did not see. So the Gospel writer emphasises that, if you persist like the Magi, you will find him. Of course, you may, like Herod, over-react and panic, and seek to put an end to this threatening child. But comparing Gospel accounts, Luke points to shepherds who also over-reacted (with terror), but who rejoiced to hear of his birth. In the prologue to the Gospel according to John, we read that ‘he came to his own home, and his own people did not recognise him’.
Again, consider the significance of the twelve days from birth to Epiphany. The number twelve is more symbolic than literal: recall the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. One tribe on its own cannot really know who Jesus is. One individual apostle cannot entirely comprehend him either. The number is symbolic of plurality. This is not some crude form of numerology, for it makes a real point. You cannot know Jesus on your own. The whole Epiphany of Christmas, with its characters of shepherds, wise men, even enemies, is testimony to a mosaic of perspectives, insights, encounters, revelations and projections.
Emily Dickinson put it like this in her poem, ‘Tell all the Truth’:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant:
…..The truth must dazzle gradually
The myth of the three wise men is also a reaching back to an ancient and enduring story captured in the book of Genesis. It is a curious tale of how God appeared to Abraham in the form of three mysterious men. Abraham receives the strangers and gives them hospitality. They announce that Abraham’s wife, the barren Sarah, almost a hundred years old, will bear a son. Sarah laughs out loud at this, but the three visitors ask her if anything is too difficult for God. Nine months later, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. Matthew may have had this story in mind when he wrote his Nativity narrative.
What brings these stories together? Well, it is partly that the strangers are known by their gifts, and their gifts point to the future. In the case of Abraham, it is the future of Israel. For Jesus, the gold, frankincense and myrrh point forward to his adult ministry and his death. In both stories, the receiving of unlikely news is an important key: God is manifest in the surprise. And the bringers of the news are themselves received – by Abraham and Sarah, by Joseph and Mary. Even beyond this, the stories point to the paradox that God is hidden and yet revealed; God is mystery and yet manifest; we can see God on our own yet discover him only when we are together; God is elusive, yet also the child next door, or the visitor who turns up unannounced; we do not know God at all, and yet we do. In God, say the mystics and the poets, there is ‘a deep yet dazzling darkness’, a wonderful oxymoron that takes us to the heart of the Epiphany, this feast of so many symbols and layers of meaning.
In many ways, the wise men are our patrons, and we can be helped by their story. They are Johnny-come-latelies, knowing what it is like coming to Christ by a roundabout route, with many dead-ends and wrong turnings along the way. But they are still welcomed. The wise men did not leave their full range of human experience at the stable door. They took it right to the child of Bethlehem and knelt before him. In spite of their status, they did not pretend to be something they were not. Nor did they forget the long, hard journey they had made, during which they had grown older and probably yet more cynical about the world. They came – eventually – with their strange gifts and their complex pasts – and they were welcomed. And so are we: it is never too late to discover the significance of the child of Bethlehem. And it isn’t a one-off experience. Damascus Road experiences notwithstanding, it is the ongoing work of a lifetime. Afterwards, Matthew tells us, the wise men departed for their own country by another way. Well, after the encounter with Jesus, how could they – how could we – possibly go back to the old route?