Today is the feast of the Epiphany when we celebrate the visit of the wise men. The word epiphany means revelation – suddenly seeing something true.
The ‘Epiphany’ that season focuses on is the epiphany of Christ to the magi, although in the following Sundays that make up a whole “season” of epiphany we hear about the epiphany of Jesus’ baptism (when God the Father speaks and the Spirit appears as a dove when Jesus enters the waters of the river Jordan) and the first miracle of Jesus (when the change faith can make in our lives is symbolised by boring-old-water being changed into rich, intoxicating wine)
But the “Epiphany” of the magi did not come easily. It’s not simply that any long journey was challenge in the ancient world, this was a mysterious quest with puzzle at its beginning, a shocking conclusion and a middle shrouded in mystery and uncertainty.
The vision of the 3 Kings that has developed in our religious culture is worth unpicking. We will finish this service with the carol “We three Kings” but we sing it to celebrate an inspiring story, not as a hymn to historical accuracy. It is often imagined that three Kings who had a hobby of stargazing, saw a star in the sky and decided to “follow” it. The star led them first to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem and a directly to a stable where they found the baby Jesus.
The Biblical story is less straightforward: If we read the Bible we find that the wise men there were not ‘Kings’ and we don’t know how many of them there were. They brought three gifts so it was assumed there were three, but the Bible gives no number.
The bible says these wise men saw a star “as it rose” and says nothing about the star guiding them. They were astrologers who saw meaning in a strange celestial phenomenon. The star is not mentioned until much later in their journey, in inference being that it disappeared for a time, and they travelled in darkness. This certainly fits in with the story that they had to make inquiries, and traveled to Herod’s palace to see if he knew anything about the birth of a new king.
There was no guiding star – only theories and prophesies and rumours. Their journey was full of dangers and doubts and difficulties. But they persevered. And then the star appears again as they approach Bethlehem, and they take this as confirmation of their mission, but the first confirmation from the heavens since their quest began.
Finally they meet the child prophesied to be King, but not in a palace, not in luxury, not with an entourage of midwifes and doctors, but in poverty, born to a couple of poor, illiterate peasants. And here the Magi earn the title of “wise men” for they recognise the poor child and offer their gifts of God, Frankincense and Myrrh.
The Biblical version of the story is much more inspiring than the popular version (although both may be at odds with history)
We too are on a journey, when we started, in the enthusiasm of youth, most of us were attracted by something bright – an ideal or a vocation, a vision of hope. But this ‘star’ does not remain in the sky the whole way through our journey, we lose sight of it, and our path grows dark.
The magi can be role-models for our journey, they lost sight of the star but kept going, they made inquiries, they studied and reflected and they kept on going… until eventually they saw the light again and found their way to Bethlehem and offered their gifts
I’d like to close with a famous poem that captures the struggle of the journey, the alienation of the wise men in a strange land, and foreshadows the end of Jesus life with its lines about “three trees on a hill” and playing “dice” and “pieces of silver”
The Journey Of The Magi by T.S. Eliot
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.