“Arise, Shine, for Your Light Has Come” — Rev. Brent Gundlah
First Reading (Isaiah 60: 1-6, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Matthew 2:1-12, NRSVUE)
So, the Christmas season officially ends today. Well, it actually ended yesterday since January 6th is the “official” date of the Epiphany (which is the twelfth and last day of Christmas) but since we weren’t here yesterday, we’re celebrating it today. I really hope you were able to enjoy that extra day of holiday cheer this year (kind of like that hour of sleep you get when you set the clocks back in the fall).
In the part of Ohio where I served before coming to Utah, January 6th was a really big deal. Many Amish and Mennonite communities there (and elsewhere throughout Appalachia) celebrate this day as “Old Christmas.” We knew nothing of this until we went to one of those local family style restaurants for dinner on January 6th of our first year there (which happened to be a Saturday just like this year) to discover a place filled to the brim with families feasting on fried chicken and mashed potatoes and biscuits while exchanging gifts.
Being the curious type — especially when it comes to religious observances (go figure) — I decided to inquire as to why this specific day was chosen for such a celebration, and the answer I received was so obvious that I was a little embarassed for not figuring it out on my own. They gave one another presents on the day of the Epiphany becuase that was, at least according to Matthew, when the wise men shared their gifts with the infant Jesus and his family. And this discovery was kind of an epihpany for me too — one that inspired me to rewatch some of those documentaries that profess to tell the “real truth” behind the biblical Christmas story.
The experience of these shows tends to be pretty predictable — from the researchers’ provocative and enticing claims to have discovered something new, to endings that always seem to leave the questions raised at the outset mostly unanswered. In between, they muse over issues such as: Exactly who were the magi? Was the star that they followed an actual star, or was it an eclipse, or a comet, or maybe even an alien spacecraft? Can we pinpoint the exact day when all of this took place or determine the precise location where it all happened by joining what Matthew has to say with our modern understanding of the way the world works? This is all kind of interesting, I suppose, but the greater question for me is why people feel so compelled to figure out every last detail of this story.
I mean, if we’re looking for incontrovertible historical or scientific facts, then the Bible typically gives us very few of them — and this particular case is no exception to that rule. Matthew’s Gospel is the only place where the Epiphany story appears, so there’s no other text to compare it to, and when we stop and consider what Matthew actually tells us about what transpired, even the things we think we do know get called into question.
For example: How many magi were there? Let’s be honest, most of us would say there were three of them. But Matthew never actually tells us this. This so-called “fact” about the Epiphany didn’t gain traction until hundreds of years later. So why do we think there were three of them?
Matthew’s use of the plural magi (instead of the singular magos) tells us only that there was more than one of them. Western Christian tradition has come to understand that, since there were three gifts — the gold, frankincense and myrrh about which Matthew actually does speak — then it’s logical to conclude that three people must have brought them.Many Eastern Christians, however, believe with equal conviction that there were twelve magi (so, four per gift). It’s unlikely that we will ever know for sure how many of them there were, but does it really matter?
In the Western Church, we’ve come to know these magi as Gaspar (a king of India), Balthazar (a king of Arabia) and Melchior (a king of Persia). Syrian Christians, however, call them Larvandad [Lar-Vun-Dahd], Gushnasaph [Goosh-Nas-Aff] and Hormisdas [Hor-Miss-Dahs] (don’t even think about asking me to repeat all that). Ethiopians use the names Hor [Orr], Karsudan [Kar-Sudan] and Basanater [Bas-Ah-Notter] (and I’m not going to say them again either). Many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi came from China. Matthew only tells us that they came from the East. And he doesn’t give them names. Over the centuries, people made up all the rest.
The idea that these magi were actually kings appears nowhere in Matthew either. This seems to be the result of people reading parts of the 72nd Psalm and Isaiah 60 back into Matthew’s gospel story. Speaking of the Messiah who is to come, the Psalmist writes, “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.” Along similar lines, Isaiah prophecies that, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” So, in order to fulfill Hebrew Bible prophecy to the letter, the magi had to be kings.
In actuality, though, the magi were not kings; they were a class of Persian priests renowned — at least in their own culture — for being skilled astrologers and dream interpreters. In the Bible, however, such people are generally depicted as being charlatans and they thus likely would have been looked upon by Matthew’s audience with scorn or contempt. So while the First Testament tells us that kings were supposed to come to pay tribute to this newborn messiah, Matthew gives us a group of traveling fortune tellers. Perhaps this is a clue that things in Jesus’s story aren’t going to be what anyone thinks they should be.
These magi — these so-called wise men — also do some things that might leave us scratching our heads in disbelief. They show up in Jerusalem looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews,” and in so doing manage to raise a ruckus big enough to frighten King Herod and “all Jerusalem with him.” And this does not seem like a particularly good idea. Did these magi, who came to celebrate the birth of the new king, not realize that the absolute worst person on earth to discuss this with would be the current king? Why do they not seem to get the least bit suspicious when Herod asks them to let him know where he can find Jesus so that he can also “go and pay him homage”? When they arrive in Bethlehem and find the infant king in a family of Judean peasants, did they not wonder what these people would actually do with extravagantly impractical gifts like gold, frankincense and myrrh?
And if Herod is so intent on ridding himself of the newfound threat that the infant Jesus presents — and the rest of this chapter, with the chilling story of the slaughter of the innocents, shows us that he is definitely pretty serious about this — then why doesn’t he just have someone follow the magi to Bethlehem and kill Jesus right there? Herod is the one who actually sends the magi to Bethlehem after all. Wouldn’t that have made more sense?
But therein lies the greater significance of Matthew’s Epiphany story — it defies any kind of logical, rational explanation. It challenges our notions about what is and what should be. It doesn’t actually make sense.
This is problematic for us humans because we always seem to crave certainty and predictability in our lives; it’s just part of our nature. Thus, Herod simply must know from the magi “the exact time when the star had appeared” as he strives to preserve his power and the status quo. Thus, the magi are compelled to come to Bethlehem in order to witness for themselves what they have already intuited to be true. Thus, we Christians throughout history have always looked for some kind of factual basis for Matthew’s Epiphany narrative.
We have dependably sought to classify and codify the myriad details of this story — to quantify the magi, to declare that we know where they came from, to turn them from fortune tellers into kings, to give them actual names, to explain the nature of the star in the night sky, to tie it all up with a nice neat little bow. We try desperately to make it all make some kind of sense.
But, let’s face it — try as we might, it just doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because the story is just plain weird. And in its resplendent strangeness, it manages to subvert all of our very human notions about the way things have always been and are supposed to be. Matthew’s not writing a history textbook or a scientific proof about Jesus — he is trying to get his reader to understand and to believe that Jesus is the messiah — though not the messiah that anyone actually expected.
In his telling of the story, Matthew virtually begs us to rise above the details in order to focus on the bigger picture, to stop looking at things the way we always have so that we might see things differently. If we don’t focus so much on the trees, we might just find the forest. If we stop looking for the details, we might just find the truth.
The best translation of the word “Epiphany” that I have ever come across defines it as a “Sudden, surprising happening that changes everything.” This is the essence of what Matthew is trying to convey right here in this story — the idea that Jesus’s birth changes absolutely everything.
And this is just the beginning. Over the next several months, we’ll hear once again the unfolding story of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. We’ll learn about the unfathomable mystery of a God who chose to come to us, to live and die as one of us, and to rise again.
May we experience this story with a sense of wonder, never losing sight of just how marvelously strange and unexpected it truly is.