The Magi — those 3 Wise Guys — are some of my favorite guys. And today we celebrate the (transferred) Solemnity of the Epiphany. Calendar-wise the Epiphany falls on January 6th, the day after the 12th Day of Christmas. In the United States, when January 6th is not a Sunday, we move it liturgically to the closest Sunday – which is usually the 2nd Sunday in the Christmas season.
Lots of places and countries and faith communities all over the world however, continue to celebrate Epiphany on January 6th – right where it lands – with national holidays, days off work, festivals, gift-giving, and church services. For many of these people and countries – they identify correctly the arrival of the Three Wise Guys – as the high point of the Christmas season – when someone discovers that Jesus is actually the Gift for the Whole World. You know. Our world. The weary world. The one in sin and error pining. It is Him…it is Jesus for Whom we long.
The word epiphany is such a cool word – it just SOUNDS like something sparkly and significant. I LOVE it! But I especially love what this moment – or more specifically: this series of moments — means for the world in this case.
We actually celebrate 3 epiphanies amidst this often-passed-by day in Christmastide – 1 major epiphany and 2 minor epiphanies – WHO KNEW?! Here are some fun things to consider:
Minor Epiphany #1:
This precedes the arrival of the Magi – it’s how they actually happen to set out. There are lots of ways to “do the math” on this – and there’s lots we don’t know for sure – but following the clues in Matthew’s gospel along with a little about what we know about the historical time of Jesus’s birth – and actually more from what we know about the reign of Herod, we can ascertain the following:
- The star happened at/around the actual birth of Jesus. Not much beforehand.
[for more on this see The Star of Bethlehem https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exmbuX1NffU for more actual astronomy wisdom – it’s 5-6 years old and about 70 minutes long and admittedly does not carry great audience-grabbing personality – but a fascinating explanation using computer-generated historical star-charts to see what those Wise Guys would have seen in the sky and what that would have meant at the time. Starts out slow but REALLY COOL!]
- “from the East” could have meant any number of places. Probably the Magi were from the Persian Empire – which again – leaves a broad spectrum regarding how far away they came from. The Persian Empire at the time of Herod and Jesus would have included what is today:
Iran (about 1000 miles away),
Egypt (about 300 miles away),
Turkey (about 600 miles away),
and parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan (about 2000 miles away).
And they walked. Or traveled by camel or some other beast. And if they generously could make it about 10 miles/day – the very least it could have taken them would have been 30 days and the longest distance would have taken 9 months to a year. And let’s think about how they would have traveled: packing for a 30-day trip or a 200-day trip would take some planning. So add on some more time there.
- We have no idea how many Magi there actually were. There could have been 1. There could have been 30. And they likely traveled in a caravan, with servants and gamekeepers, and literally everyone else and their cousin. What we do know, however, from scripture, is that there were 3 gifts. That’s why there are traditionally 3 Wise Men. Crazy, right?! And watch for more – those 3 Gifts are a #WholeOtherThingYO!
- Why are they wise? Wise refers to learned or educated – but also the Greek – used by only Matthew – Magi – suggests a class of “priest” similar to what the Jews would have called the tribe of the Levites – the priests of the people. Some think the Magi were like magicians (think Jafar from Aladdin), but more likely they were trusted advisors to the actual kings of their Eastern lands. Which is also why they are sometimes called the 3 Kings. They would have spoken for their royal masters. And most significantly – their advisory role did not employ magic as we know it – but was done by studying science. Specifically weather, astronomy, astrology, and the environment. And in the time of Jesus – you were either a Jew and believed in one God – or you were a Gentile and believed in many gods. The Magi would have been even a group of people outside of this. They believed in science. Facts. That which they could see.
And the minor Epiphany in all that — is that they saw whatever they saw in the sky, read it to mean the rising of a new King, and went to seek out and acknowledge this thing they thought was significant. At great time and expense. Their faith – even though they would not have classified it as faith — drove them to move. Not to wait. To go and seek out the light. #BOOM.
AND given the timing – regardless of how you do your historical or scriptural math – the Magi would have likely arrived somewhere between 6 months and 24 months after Jesus was born. Can you imagine? Traveling all that way, encountering Herod, who doesn’t seem to have any idea what’s going on in his own country, and then bringing all your peeps and your stuff and your camel and your gifts and finding A 2-YEAR OLD??? I don’t know how many toddlers you know – but the ones I know are very loud, very sticky, and regularly throw important things in the toilet.
Now – I’m not trying to say anything about Jesus particularly – but as He is fully human as well as divine – I cannot imagine He was anything less than a regular 2-year-old.
And these 3 Wise Guys still stopped at the house (Yes. House. Not stable. Not cave.), dropped to their knees and rolled out their gifts and worshipped this child of the poor. Something learned and educated men would NEVER have done. Their ability to encounter Jesus and recognize Him is The Thing! More on this later when we get to the major Epiphany.
Minor Epiphany #2:
Refers to the faith and trust in God by Joseph. With no spoken words – we love this about Joseph – he simply does his job and listens for God. And then he does the thing. Just as he trusted his dream where God told him not to be fearful about taking Mary into his home, Joseph also heeds the warning in a dream to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to hide from Herod.
This is also where we get a clue about timing. Herod calls for the death of all baby boys aged 2 and under. We know a significant amount of time has gone by between Jesus’ birth, the appearance of the star, the Magi arriving to Herod, the Magi arriving to Jesus, and the Magi not returning to Herod. That’s why the terrible decree.
Incidentally – the slaughter of all those children has both Old and New Testament references – but those babies and children are the ones we both mourn and celebrate in the Feast of the Holy Innocents – on 28 December every year. These are some of the first martyrs of the New Testament.
The Major Epiphany:
The major Epiphany we celebrate today is *not* actually the 3 Wise Guys arriving. It’s what happens when they leave. It’s in the very last line of the gospel today (Matthew 2: 1-12). It’s that the Magi – after being warned in a dream not to return to Herod – departed for their country by another way.
How extraordinary! This changes the trajectory of the whole story!
The kerygma – the Great Story of Jesus – is directly impacted by humans – and humans who Don’t. Believe. In. God. But they came anyway. And what is more – these are the folks who were among the very first to encounter the Lord! These are who God reveals Himself to first! Not Scribes. Not Pharisees. Not the most holy or the most royal.
I ought to pay very close attention to this – because this is where I find that God does not come for me. He comes for everyone. And He starts with the Not Me.
He comes for them. Whoever the “them” is in my life.
The “them” I do not like.
The “them” I do not agree with.
The “them” I do not understand.
The “them” who are unkind to me or to others.
Whenever I think Jesus is just here for me, “and not them,” I better think again. And I better think about who am I the “them” for?
It’s important to consider the Magi also believed in signs. And wonders. Just like us. And they have – without even knowing what or Who they are seeking – at great personal risk, expense, and energy – gone in search of More – which, incidentally – the Latin for Magis means More.
The “More” we are seeking – whether we can name Him or not – is Jesus.
And what truth this tells us about the life of a disciple!
Both Venerable Fulton Sheen and Bishop Barron both tell us in their own way that: once I have encountered the person of Jesus – I cannot go back the way I came – I have to go by another way.
My life is different once I have encountered Jesus. I can’t go back to my old life. Whatever I do from the moment I encounter Jesus Himself – I must now go wherever I am going – by another way. And I must take others with me.
A pastor I worked for some years ago was leaving on sabbatical literally right after the last Epiphany liturgy. He probably figured he wouldn’t have to deal with any liturgical grumbling aftermath (correct) – and so he cleverly rearranged all the figures of the nativity scene facing away from Jesus. Even the camel. His homily began with, “WHAT VANDALS DID THIS to the nativity scene?!” And everybody got uncomfortable and nervous as they strained to see what had happened. And that was his homily: once you have encountered Jesus you just plain cannot go back the way you came.
And finally the Star. Clearly a sign of light. And a sign of Jesus. But also a sign of our mission: to go and make disciples. God started with nations outside of Israel…right here with these Wise Guys. They saw the light and followed immediately. Once they realized Who Jesus is – their lives were changed.
The Wise Men arrived as seekers and left as something new. Something more. Something different.
Our epiphany today is that each of us is called to encounter Jesus. To greater holiness. To Mission. To intentional discipleship. To make disciples. Seriously. Each of us is called to carry the gift of the Great Story of Jesus and what He has done in our life to someone else — regardless of whether we are young– or young-at-heart.
Who is the Star who leads me to Jesus?
Who has shed light on my journey of faith?
Have I thanked that person?
Who am I the Star for?
Who in my life am I helping to shed light for in seeking Jesus?
Where am I leading others?
For another time…the gifts, the names [Caspar, Melchior, and Balthaszar], house blessings, and other #WiseGuyShenanigans!
20 + C + M + B + 21