Call me a liturgical geek, but I was VERY EXCITED that Epiphany landed smack dab on a Sunday this year.
I love Epiphany, and so often we have to blow right past it for Jesus’ Baptism, or something not-nearly-as-fun. But this year, we got everything! Magi! Camels! Fleeing in the Night! Narcissistic tyrants oddly and specifically threatened by foreign children!***
My point is, the story of Epiphany is incredibly important, and I’m thrilled to talk about it this year. And also to deconstruct the entirety of We Three Kings, because I love that song, but the deifying of medieval traditions is not my favorite.
::prepares for Anglo-Catholic Twitter to storm the gates::
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
January 6, 2019
Epiphany, Year C
The Epiphany story is as notable for what is not there, as for what is there. Nearly everything we expect to hear in the story of the Wise Ones going to find Jesus is not actually in the story.
Think of the carol—We Three Kings. For starters, were there three? Don’t know! We don’t have a number. The number three seems to have been settled on because you need one Wise Man to carry each gift, and you have three gifts, and who would be so cheap to show up to a new baby’s house without a gift in tow?
And men? That’s not clear either. The word in the text is magi—which means wise person, or sage of some kind. Depending on the culture, it could even mean a magician. Basically, we’re talking about someone who spent their life studying wisdom—whether that was scripture, tradition, or rudimentary science.
And that’s just the layer of tradition we have for a starter. Have you heard names for the Wise Men? Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—those start appearing around the Middle Ages. along with the idea that one Wise Man was black, one was Asian, one was European.
This is around the same time that Western Europe, which had been mired in the collapse of Rome, and the isolation of the Dark Ages, was just establishing trade with other parts of the world—Africa, the Middle East, Asia. Western European artists were just figuring out that non-white people existed, and so this was an easy way to announce that these Wise Men—they were Very Different People! Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar take on unique personalities.
Despite the layers of tradition that has been heaped on this story, inside its core, the story is pretty straightforward in Matthew’s Gospel. Magi from the East notice something strange in the sky. They travel a long, long way to figure out what is going on, and when they arrive in the foreign (to them) land of Judea, they try to investigate, which prompts much consternation.
That sounds basic, but what it signifies is really not. There was a common perception that the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, really didn’t pay much attention to Gentiles, and they didn’t pay much attention to him. There were several occasions in the Hebrew scriptures where God himself begs to differ on this point, but generally, popular religion of the time held that God ignored the Gentiles, because they were not Jewish, and also, since Gentiles were over there eating pork, and sacrificing to idols, they were not great for dinner parties either.
The idea of some Gentile sages—bigwigs in their own religious tradition—knowing enough about Hebrew messianic prophecy, and trekking hundreds of miles to seek out the new king of Israel—is somewhat mindblowing. And yet, this is the closest thing to a Christmas story Matthew tells. This is the first thing that happens in the gospel once Jesus is born—foreign, non-Jewish people show up and want to know more. God’s light goes out literally to the ends of the known world, and starts bringing together all these different people.
They saw something, that drove those first Wise Ones to travel away from everything they had ever known, and seek after something new. And they asked and asked, everyone along the way, where they could find this wondrous new birth they sought.
And no one really knew!
In a way, this is a pretty good example of the first evangelism.
Now—I realize as soon as I use that word, for some of us, the hair on the back of your neck is standing up, and you have visions of bible-thumping preachers on streetcorners, and tracts promising hellfire dancing through your heads. But that’s not evangelism, that’s bullying people, and that’s not what Christ calls us to do.
Evangelism—what I mean by that word— is sharing the good news of what God is up to in the world. And that’s it. To be able to say, when people ask “Hey look at this amazing thing happening over here that God is doing!” That’s it.
When the Magi started out for Judea, first of all, no one told them to go. They decided themselves. Or rather, God moved them to go. It is God who brings people in our doors, and into our path. All people—everyone we meet—is a gift from God. Every person that comes through those doors is a gift from God. An opportunity to glimpse the Spirit at work in someone’s life, in every person we meet.
When the Magi got to Mary and Joseph’s house, and presented the new parents with some pretty impractical gifts—I imagine that Mary and Joseph were fairly perplexed. Surely, they would have had no occasion to meet people from so far away before—much less people who didn’t speak the same language. We aren’t told what their reaction was. We are told that due to the Magi’s warning, and his own dream, Joseph decides to take his family and flee to Egypt, and thereby saves his son from Herod, so it seems likely that the family offer the Magi hospitality of some kind for a period of time.
And it is that hospitality that is evangelism. God sends people to us, God puts curiosity in people’s minds, and when we can greet their questions with hospitality, then that is sharing the good news. And make no mistake—at no point in the story of the Magi is it clear that ANYONE understands entirely what’s going on. NO one has all the answers. When the Magi are trotting around Jerusalem asking “Where is the new king and why is there a new star in the sky?” Mary and Joseph didn’t know how to explain that—but they did give them a place to sleep, something to eat, and let them meet the baby.
This is basic evangelism. When someone asks the deep questions of their hearts, the ones that God has placed there, and when we greet those questions with hospitality. That can sound intimidating, but all that’s required of us is the love of neighbor Christ asks of us, and a readiness to be present. You don’t need an advanced degree, or a knowledge of complicated theology, or all the nice pat answers. You just have to be honest and present. You have to let your light shine. When someone asks “Why do you go to church?” and you reply, “Because it makes me feel connected to something. Want to come sometime?” or someone asks “Why do you believe in that God stuff?” and you say “Because I just think there’s something bigger out there. Want to come to church with me sometime?”
When we do this, when we unapologetically follow the way of Christ in the world and let our light shine, people become curious, and amazing things happen. Really, they do. The Ethiopian Orthodox church traces its roots to Balthazar’s journey back to Africa, after seeing the Christ child. The first Christians in Mongolia claim that they were established by Caspar on his journey back. (Melchior appears to have slacked off.) One Christmas Eve, as we were cleaning up after the late service, the South Sudanese priest slung his arm around the figure of Balthazar in the life-size creche and said “Oh my brother! You and I have both come such a long way to be here!”
God’s spirit moves over the whole world, and God’s light shines over all of creation. When people notice that light shining in our lives, they are bound to get curious, and when we learn to show hospitality to that? Then the light spreads even farther.
***Look, that’s not me being inappropriately political. That’s just the gospel. YOU try to read the story of Herod reacting to the baby Jesus and tell me it doesn’t sound eerily like CNN right now.