Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
The Visit of the Wise Men
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Traditionally, the feast of Epiphany takes its inspiration from this Gospel reading about the Visit of the Magi. That festival day particularly marks the self-revelation of God to the world, including these Gentiles. No one really knows who the Magi are or where they come from. Various Christian tribes from places that are “East” of Bethlehem have claimed the Magi in their traditions. There are legends, for example, that name them Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, but no one really knows who these men were, where they were from, or even, how many of them came to visit Jesus. What we do know is that they were not Jewish and yet they too had been let into the secret of God’s coming to earth. The fact that they follow a sign in nature, namely the star which led them to Bethlehem, reminds me of the many places in scripture where God tells us this world is crying out His story.
Take, for example, Luke 19, when Jesus explains to the Pharisees that if the disciples failed to praise God, then the very rocks would cry out in praise. St. Paul also writes in the first chapter of the letter to the Romans that the people who lead lives of sin can plead no excuse of not knowing God’s law since from the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities can be seen in creation itself.
Epiphany celebrates the breath and the indiscriminate nature of God’s revelation of himself to humankind. It also celebrates the indiscriminate nature of the mercy and grace Jesus came to proclaim for anyone who repents. A light has shone in the darkness and it does not hold back for any reason. Its beams seek to penetrate every corner with no regard for what may be uncovered. Light plays differently with beautiful and ugly objects, but shines just as willingly on both.
I think we all like the idea of light flooding into darkness in a theoretical sense, but when the reality of it confronts us we can only think about the things we want to hide away. Reading this Gospel this time round, I was struck by verse 3, where it says that Herod was disturbed by the pronouncement of the Magi, and all Jerusalem with him. I can understand Herod’s anger in relation to a threat to his power, but for a nation awaiting a Messiah, this seems like a strange reaction.
I would have been less understanding a few weeks ago, but Canon Patrick Lawrence, a retired clergyman who assists in Mullingar Union, preached a really powerful sermon during Advent about Jesus’ second coming. He reminded me that we are a people, like the 1st century Jews, awaiting a far-fetched sounding visitation by a mystical saviour who will bring justice to this world. No doubt many in the church would be disturbed if a group of seers from the East announced that this event was immanent. Our treatment of the poor, of refugees and of the planet, to name a few, would surely cause the Western church to blush.
On an individual level, in theory, I welcome God’s coming to end the pain and the suffering of this world. Frail human that I am, I would also be ashamed of the many ways God would surely be disappointed in me. Advent and Epiphany, and their message of God’s light shining on the darkness of this world, have been a challenge to me to rebalance my understanding of mercy, grace and repentance. God wishes to shine a light on the darkness and sin of this world (and of me) because He loves it (and me!), not because He wants to shame. He seeks wholeness, healing and redemption when He shines light on what is wrong in this world. Pray we learn to trust in His mercy instead of being tempted to try and hide from Him – and not to be surprised if it’s the people outside the church who first read the signs and tell of His coming.
Emma Rothwell works at Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain. She lives in a 250 year old cottage on campus, and probably cares too much about the tiny flower bed she made at the front of it. Emmas recently stepped down from the post of Diocesan Youth and Children's Officer for the Dioceses of Meath and Kildare. Before that, she was a secondary school teacher of Religious Education and English. She loves British panel show comedy, reading, thinking on really long walks, dancing at weddings and talking to you about things you really care about.