When I was asked to prepare a Jan.6 message for our congregation, my initial reaction (born of childhood memories of little boys in bathrobes and tinfoil-and-construction paper “crowns” stumbling through inane recitations about the esoteric implications of gold, frankincense and myrrh!) was a distressed “OH, NO!!!!” But I have learned, over many years, that accepting a challenging assignment just may result in actually learning something – and this was no exception.
The label of this “Feast Day”, designated by liturgical traditions as “Epiphany”, is the English cognate derived from the Greek word, epifaneia, (treated briefly in #166, “Appear”), which is used only six times in the New Testament, but quite frequently in classical writings. L/S lists “appearance (as opposed to reality), coming into light or view, daybreak, dawn, a manifestation of divine power, the accession to the throne of an emperor, the manifestation or appearance of a deity to a worshiper, outward show or fame.” The New Testament references pertain exclusively to Jesus’ eventual return in glory, but strangely, that event is not included in any of the historical or liturgical references to “Epiphany”. And the word does not appear in any of the scriptures assigned to its celebration!
The western church usually celebrates Epiphany as the time of the arrival of the “wise men” or Magi, which some of them then expand to refer to the inclusion of Gentiles among the people of God.
Some Eastern Orthodox groups observe Jan.6 as the “correct” date of Jesus’ birth – the discrepancy with Dec.25 involving the Julian vs. the Gregorian calendars – although it is unlikely that either represents Jesus’ actual “birthday”. Others link it to Jesus’ baptism by John, and subsequently to their own baptism.
Coptic and Syrian communions connect it to recognizing Jesus as “the Light of the World”, and are thought to have adopted the timing of the celebration to counteract the solstice / sun-worship of surrounding cultures.
All three of these perspectives are worth celebrating, whether or not their calendars are technically correct. I would like to suggest a few observations, usually neglected, from the Biblical accounts concerning each one of them, and recommend them all as worthy of further study.
First: the Magi, the “wise men”. Notice in Mt.2:1-12, the only place they are mentioned, that we do NOT know who they were, where they came from, how many there were, or when they arrived. Through the centuries, elaborate traditions have turned them into “kings”, concluded that there were three (probably because of the mention of three gifts), named them, assigned them racial and cultural identities and biographies – none of which are derived from the gospel account. So – What DO we know?
Matthew calls them “magi” – the source of the English word “magic”, and the same word used to describe Simon the sorcerer in Ac.8:9! – and says simply that they were “from the east.” This, and their following of a star, strongly suggests that they were astrologers – a practice sternly condemned in Old Testament law (Dt.18:9-14), and often punishable by death! An overland journey from Babylon or Persia – both east of Palestine – where such studies were common, would have taken months, if not years. (Certainly more than 12 days!) Notice that after finding out when they had sighted the star, Herod ordered the massacre of all the babies under the age of two!
Much has been made – also totally devoid of Scriptural evidence – of the so-called “spiritual” implications of the gifts. But one obvious element is consistently overlooked: Not only were/are gold, frankincense, and myrrh extremely valuable, but they are also very portable! A small quantity represents great value. The little family was soon to undertake a long and perilous journey, and to spend several years as refugees in a foreign country. Might this not have been God’s very practical provision to finance their exile (whether the donors knew it or not!)?
Matthew’s brief conclusion, too, is often overlooked; After the visitors offered their gifts and worshiped, “they went home by another road.” Has anyone truly worshiped, who does not thereafter, wherever he goes, take “another road?
It took many years,and many more deliberate interventions by the Lord – Jesus’ welcome and healing of foreigners, Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, the brotherhood at Antioch, the Jerusalem Conference – before Jesus’ disciples finally caught on to the message that Paul called “the mystery hidden from the foundation of the world, but now revealed …” that Jesus came to include all sorts of people in his Kingdom. But even though the idea can be found in some older prophetic writings, it is possible that this was indeed the first tangible demonstration of overt inclusion – and as such, it is certainly worth celebrating!
The Orthodox celebration of Christmas on Jan.6 is a subject that requires historical rather than Biblical study. But the link with Jesus’ baptism by John (Mt.3:13-17), has also become rather convoluted. It is sometimes scrambled with his presentation in the temple, in order to justify the practice of infant baptism, but the fact is (Lk.3:23) that Jesus was 30 years old when he was baptized, and embarking on his public ministry.
A more serious scrambling occurs in the failure to distinguish between John’s baptism, and the baptism of Christian commitment. This failure dates at least all the way back to Paul’s visit to Ephesus (Ac.19:1-7), where he found a group of disciples who had been taught an incomplete message that had included only “John’s baptism” – which Paul immediately undertook to correct. He explained that John had preached “a baptism of repentance” in preparation for Jesus’ arrival. “Clean things up! The King is coming!” John called for confession and repentance – a radical change of life and behavior. Clearly, both he and Jesus realized that Jesus had no such need, and neither is mentioned in the description of his baptism. The significant points in this scene are three:
First is Jesus’ interaction with John, who had rightly recognized Jesus’ superiority. Without abandoning that true identity, Jesus nevertheless refused to avail himself of the privileged status he deserved – a pattern he followed throughout his life, and one urged upon his followers on many occasions (Phil.2).
Secondly, Jesus set an example of recognizing and supporting the calling of others. John had not been certified, “ordained”, or otherwise endorsed by any existing hierarchical or ecclesiastical organization. His only credential was his obedience to the call of God. By his action, Jesus made a powerful assertion that he supported such obedience.
Third, it is after the baptism that the Holy Spirit gives testimony to Jesus’ identity as God’s obedient and dearly loved Son. This marks a sharp transition in the content of the practice and teaching of baptism.
The baptism of disciples “into the Name [identity – see #24] of Jesus” is a totally different affair from John’s version. One of the best summaries is offered by Paul in Rom.6:4 : “We were buried together with him through baptism, into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so also we might live a completely new life!” Nothing is said here about “confession” or “repentance”! Christian baptism represents the definitive end of one life and the beginning of another! (I have devoted a whole chapter – ch.10 – to this in Citizens of the Kingdom.) The “fuel” for Kingdom living is not continual mournful repetitions of “confessions” and “repentance”, but rather the power of resurrection life, in union with Jesus and his people!
As we celebrate in Epiphany both Jesus’ baptism and our own, perhaps we would do well to pay greater attention to the difference between John’s and Jesus’ versions of baptism, and to renew our own commitment to a life of resurrection with him!
And finally, with our Syrian and Coptic brethren, we celebrate the coming of Light into the world. Not only has “the One who said, Light will shine out of darkness, shined in our hearts” (II Cor.4:6), but he has personally commissioned his people (Mt.5:14) to mediate that light to the world! This, incidentally, is another place where the admonition is addressed in the plural. It can only happen in the gathered group of his people! “Shining the Light” was never an individual assignment! As John noted (3:19-21), some folks will welcome that light, and celebrate the glory of God; others will seek to hide in the darkness, lest their nefarious schemes be discovered. Some will even try to extinguish it. But the Light has come! Darkness can ultimately neither understand nor defeat it. As Paul affirmed bluntly, “Once, you all were darkness; but now you are light in the Lord! Behave as children of light (Eph.5:8) There is additional treatment of Light in #75.
So, let’s do celebrate Epiphany:
the dawn, the coming of Light, the accession of our King to his rightful throne!
Give thanks for the revelation of the Light to the world, and the privilege to participate in its shining!
Reflect on your own Resurrection Life, that began when you chose to be baptized into the Kingdom, and continues as we all learn to walk together among his people!
And with the Magi – whoever they are, wherever they came from, and whenever they arrived – let us worship together, and go forward by a different road!