All throughout the seasons of Advent and Christmas, we have had one symbol that recurs, light. In Advent, the light is growing. Along with our growing sense of anticipation and expectation, we light candles in the darkness, one more each week. At Christmas we celebrate the light at its fullest – the Incarnation, light overcoming darkness. We worship Jesus, the Christ-child, the light of the world, God with us. We festoon trees with lights. We light many candles to celebrate the coming of the light. And now that the Twelve Days of Christmas have ended, we have come to Epiphany. Today and in the season to follow, we will talk about and sing about and ponder light again. The difference is that the light is now spreading.
At Christmas God’s light, incarnate in Jesus, shines forth. It shines forth drawing all manner of people to its source. At Jesus’ birth, shepherds came. They were the local folk, most likely Jewish. But at Epiphany, it’s not just Jewish people who see the light, but all nations, including those who have never even heard the story. All nations are drawn to God’s light.
“Wise men came from the East.” These words are perhaps as familiar as, “and there were in the same country shepherds.” Popular culture, perhaps for convenience sake, has rushed the wise men, or magi, to the manger with the shepherds. But they don’t show up in the same Gospel or at the same time. Luke has shepherds, there at the birth, while Matthew tells the story of these magi, clearly astrologers, who came from a great distance, drawn by the light of the star. No stable, no manger, just Mary and the child Jesus. This is why we are here tonight – the coming of the magi to the child Jesus.
In some countries, namely Spain and countries such as Greece, Russia and Eastern Europe where the Eastern Orthodox Church remains the preeminent expression of the Christian faith, Epiphany is a time to exchange gifts. Why? It’s what the magi did.
They give him presents: gold for royalty, frankincense for worship and also myrrh. Myrrh is an odd gift, because it was a strong perfume, used for such heavy-duty work as embalming the dead. It adds a somber note to the joyful proceedings. Three gifts – this is where the notion of three kings comes from, though the text never says there were three magi. Legend has given them names and races, filling in their back-stories, but the writer of Matthew doesn’t seem interested in that. Clearly, that these pagan, gentile astrologers journeyed for months if not years to pay homage to a Jewish king should strike us as miraculous.
It struck Herod too, but it what’s more terrified him. Any other “king of the Jews” was clearly a threat to his power, and the fact that Jesus was just a young child must have made Herod a bit relieved – children are vulnerable and weak, and therefore much more easily disposed of.
Try as he might to extinguish the light, Herod failed. The name of Herod the Great will be forever tied to terror and bloodshed. He has earned a place among the great tyrants of history – not quite the legacy I’m sure he was working so hard to establish for himself.
The light survived his attempt to douse it. These foreign potentates testify to the miraculous coming of the light, God’s gift to a people that walked in darkness. And this gift was for all the world, as their presence attests.
The literal meaning of the word epiphany is “a manifestation” or “a striking appearance.” The season after the Epiphany is full of manifestations of Jesus, both his nature and his power – the lectionary readings include Jesus’ first miracle, the wedding at Cana. We also hear stories of Jesus’ striking appearance, the Transfiguration, and this Sunday we will hear the story of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer.
The light has grown. The light has come. And now the light is spreading. Let us rejoice as we share of our lives to a world in darkness that the light may continue to grow. Spread the light. Amen.