This year, the wise men have arrived a few days earlier than expected! The coming of the wise men to find the infant Jesus and worship him is an event which triggers the Epiphany season – a series of epiphanies during the next few weeks of the church year which the gospels focus on in different ways – from the journey of the Magi to Jesus’ baptism and the Father’s declaration of him as his beloved Son; from John the Baptist seeing Jesus coming towards him and saying ‘ Behold the
Lamb of God’, to old man Simeon in the Temple recognising Christ as ‘a light to enlighten the Gentiles at Candlemas which brings down the curtain on the Epiphany season. But these events are all little epiphanies – revealings of who this infant, this child, this man really is. Today, we focus on the first of this series of Epiphaniesthe arrival of wise ones from a far country to offer the Christ child precious gifts. During the 12 days of Christmas we celebrate that God did an astonishing thing by the incarnation – coming as light into the world, as St John put it. And today when we are keeping the Feast of the Epiphany, (which actually falls on Wednesday) , we celebrate the light coming to each of us – our own moment of enlightenment when we come to know, each of us, that Christmas, that God’s light is for each of us. The principle story for the Epiphany involves the image of the Christmas star. It is almost as strange and incredible a story as the nativity itself. A new star appears in the sky, and wise ones from eastern lands, astrologers – diviners, that is interpreters of prophecies most probably, understand the star as a call to journey to a distant country to see the long prophesied king of the Jews. We sense the story goes beyond the realm of reality when Matthew tells us the star stopped over the place where Jesus was. Stars after all just don’t do that – and you don’t have to be wise to know it! The story though is filled with symbolism – so much so we might be inclined to take the whole account to be symbolic rather than factual. And there would be good reason for Matthew to hide his meaning in symbols because the story he has to tell would have been political dynamite in his day. So what are the symbols? The wise ones significantly come from ‘the east’. We traditionally number them three, because three gifts are mentioned, and tradition calls them kings because their gifts were royal; but Matthew says no such thing – there could have been two, or twenty. For Matthew what matters is that they are wise ones – star gazers and scholars of prophecy, religious scholars who can read the signs of the times, and that they come from lands far away to the east. Their journey didn’t take 2 weeks – more likely 2 years. In other words they came from lands that the Roman Empire had never been able to conquer. Their message is that Jesus’ empire – his kingdom – will be truly global showing the Roman Empire’s claims of world domination as empty, and that the emperor, rather than being regarded as divine, will merely just be another king. These wise emissaries from unconquered nations with strange gods willingly bow down before the infant Jesus; they who’ve never bowed to Caesar. This is political dynamite – just as it was for the early Christians to say: ‘Jesus is Lord’. This infant is king above all kings, his God above all gods – seditious indeed! Those were the titles that belonged to Caesar alone. And what about the gifts the wise ones offer? Useless to an infant, except possibly the gold ( echoes of those gold or silver spoons that are traditionally given as gifts to a new born baby). In the Biblical account, these gifts are clearly meant to be symbols as well. Gold for a king; frankincense for a priest ( as we heard in the reading from Isaiah) and myrrh for death and burial. Jesus is, Matthew is claiming, by these offerings King, High Priest of the living and Conqueror of death. This is a lordship that not even Caesar ever dared to claim for himself. The absurdity that saves all this symbolism from irrelevance is that Matthew claims this universal Kingship and priestly authority not for the oppressed Jewish people alone but for a baby with a family tree; fallen from ultimate status to obscurity. He claims it for someone that even the most worthless slave, even the most downtrodden beggar can relate to. So the great epiphany, the amazing manifestation of God we celebrate at this point is the appearance of God among us, whose authority is ultimate but whose power is entirely given away; who submits completely to the joys and fears of a human life like ours so that the light that comes into the world will not be dim and distant but bright and accessible. So where and when was your epiphany? When did you realise God was in your world? What star led you to this place? Perhaps it hasn’t come to you yet. God’s light, God’s love might be something you’ve heard about but never really felt for yourself. Perhaps it came to you so long ago that’s you don’t really remember it. Maybe God has always been present in your life. Or perhaps you have had one of those experiences that become the source of story ands even symbol, where you have been suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelmed by God and turned your life in a new direction. Or maybe your piphanies are less dramatic but more frequent. Perhaps the light keeps shining through in surprising places and at surprising times to remind you God continually breaks in. Whether your epiphany is momentous or continuous, or yet to come, know that the light that has come into the world is constantly trying to come into your life as well. There are bright stars all around, shining with love and faith and hope, that will lead you to God, if your are wise enough to follow. And when God is manifested to you, like the wise ones, you have your own gifts to bring – your influence, your worship, your treasure, your life – to both acknowledge that subversive authority of God in Jesus, and to lead others to the manger. To be radiant- as Isaiah says- to become in your own way a guiding light – a Christmas star. In one of his finest poems, W H Auden has each of the three wise men give a reason why he follows the star. ‘ To discover how to be truthful now, is the reason I follow the star,’ says the first. ‘To discover how to be living now, is the reason I follow the star’, says the second. ‘ To discover how to be loving now, is the reason `I follow the star’ says the third. And in Auden’s poem, the wise men then speak in unison and say:’ ‘ To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow the star’. *.
May those words encourage us on this first Sunday of a New Year, and bring fresh hope for 2021.
W H Auden ‘ For the time being’.