“Epiphany,” Susan Ryder

The story of the Magi is a classic one, like Oedipus or Hamlet or Moby Dick, and such stories can contain truths that speak to us, whether or not they are factual. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “It is not that facts don’t matter. It is just that they don’t matter as much as the stories do, and stories can be true whether they happened or not. You do not have to do archaeology to find out if they are genuine, or spend years in the library combing ancient texts. There is another way home. You listen to the story. You let it come to life inside you, and then you decide on the basis of your own tears or laughter whether the story is true.” So I invite you to listen to what is true for you in this story from Matthew:

Matthew 2
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” And hearing this, Herod the king was troubled, and all Jerusalem as well; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told Herod, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.'”

Then Herod summoned the magi secretly, ascertained from them what time the star appeared, and sent them to Bethlehem saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After they heard the king they went their way; and the star that they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered the child gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Road – Once upon a time there were three – yes, three – very wise men who were sitting in their own countries minding their own business when a bright star lodged in the right eye of each one of them. It was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their own imaginations, but they were so wise that they knew it did not matter that much. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives.

The journey of the wise men is one of the more intriguing and often overlooked aspects of Jesus’ origin story. They are so enigmatic that we add a lot to their story, found in the Gospel of Matthew, that isn’t actually there. For instance, we sometimes imagine them in the manger scene with the shepherds and angels from Luke’s gospel, even though they only appear in Matthew – and not until Jesus was a toddler. Some interpret them as kings, though there is nothing to suggest that they were royalty. The passage itself calls them magi – Zoroastrian priests from Persia, also referred to as wise men, scholarly men. Additionally, there is no particular reason to think that there were three of them – the passage doesn’t number them. Perhaps it was assumed there were three because there were three gifts? Somewhere along the way in the 6th century, they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar – although there’s no historical basis. Eventually they even became Saints. Of course, it’s not a bad thing to add to a story – it’s happens all the time. It does point out a long fascination with this story and these characters from another land.

Christians observe Epiphany tomorrow, which commemorates the visit of these Magi from the east. As the story goes, they followed a star to find the Christ child so they could pay him homage. The word “epiphany” means “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something; a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.” In a spiritual context, it refers to those times when God breaks into our world in such a way that we become more attuned to the divine nature. It is sometimes referred to as an “aha” moment, a spiritual awakening. I like to think of it as an internal light suddenly switching on, illuminating the darkness. Thus the symbol of the season of Epiphany is a Star, a bright light shining in the night sky.

As I was pondering Epiphany this week, I realized that the magi are unique among characters in the traditional stories of Jesus’s birth because of something that didn’t happen to them – and the thing that didn’t happen to them makes them more relatable for me than some of the others in the story. Between Matthew and Luke’s versions, almost every main character is visited by an angel who essentially says, “Hey, listen up! No, no, don’t be afraid of me just because I’m a heavenly apparition appearing out of nowhere – come out from under the bed and stop screaming and pay attention here – I have something important to share!” The angel then proceeds to tell them exactly what is going to happen, what they should do, and what it will mean. Combining the two stories, an angel visits Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist – who are all clued in on exactly what is going on.

But the magi were not visited by an angel. They were not given advance notice of what’s important by a heavenly figure that is so totally outside the realm of their experience that they can’t help but pay attention. Instead the magi are tasked with figuring out the importance of things on their own – or rather, they must interpret what’s going on out of their normal experience and awareness. I imagine it happening for them like it happens for most of us: no chorus of angels; no Divine pronouncements; no interpretation. Yes, there was a star – a star brighter than any others in the heavens – that guided them. But if everyone knew what the star signified just by looking at it, then everyone would have traveled to Bethlehem to visit the holy family for themselves. As it was, the star, miraculous as we might imagine it, was not outside the realm of their normal experience. Zoroastrian priests were, among other things, astrologers who recognized it as a sign something special.

Later, one of the wise men had a dream that warned them not to return to King Herod as planned and promised, but rather to return home by another route. Perhaps some consider a dream similar to an angelic visit, but again these priests, these magi, were also known for interpreting dreams – they often explored their dreams for guidance – it was in their wheelhouse, as it were. So, stars and dreams, as magical as they may appear to us, were normal parts of the lives of the magi. And at any rate, the interpretation was still up to them – no angel gave them instructions. They had to rely on their own understanding (part of what makes them more relatable to me), which meant they did not return to Herod to share Jesus’ address with him, sensing it would come to no good end. Which of course it still didn’t – even without the location, there was much devastation and death in the wake of Herod’s insecurities and weaknesses.

We live in a time with our own King Herod’s, still subject to the whim of powerful leaders who seek to destroy and conquer to compensate for their insecurities and frailties. From the Supreme Leader in Iran to our own President, there will always be dangerous people that we have to contend with who would rather wreak havoc first and ask questions later. With the assassination of the Iranian general we feel especially vulnerable, at risk – and there is no Egypt where we can run and hide until the danger passes. Like the Magi, in this darkness we’re left with our intuition – call it an epiphany. Security and hope aren’t found wielding the power to destroy. They’re found in supporting the vulnerable, treating the most humble among us as manifestations of the sacred. For this reason it helps to understand that epiphanies are not magical voices from outside ourselves; not miraculous visions or angelic visitations only offered to a few that provide us with clear explanations what to do or clear directions where to go. An epiphany is not a transcendent experience that lifts us above or beyond the everyday world. The best and most authentic way to think of an epiphany is as an experience of heightened awareness; a sense about the importance of what is plainly before us, something potentially extraordinary we may have overlooked because of its ordinariness. An epiphany does not make a grand entrance; it is not loud nor flashy; rather epiphanies come in moments that are delicate and ephemeral, in the everydayness of our lives.

Think of an epiphany that may have arisen in your life. It might feel big or small; it may have been recent or long ago. Take a couple deep breaths as you let the feeling of that realization, that awareness, fill you again. Picture it as a light that you hold within you. Find a place near your heart where you can keep that epiphany with you. Imagine where this epiphany might lead you in the future. As Barbara Brown Taylor says of the wise men, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives.


A Brave and Startling Truth by Maya Angelou

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule … globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace …

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness …

That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it …
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.