In this season of Epiphany we enter the realm of light. In fact the Greek Church, in the language of the people, has called this season, Ta Phota: “the lights.” In the Eastern Church, this season of light is celebrated as fully as the season of Christmas, reminding us that Epiphany was once the greater feast.
The literal meaning of Epiphany is “appearing” which could mean becoming visible or ‘coming into sight’. For the Wise men, whose story is only found in Matthew’s gospel, a royal star appeared where one had not shined before. Then they travelled, in their rich robes on their stately camels, as tradition has morphed them into kings, following that star to the palace in Jerusalem, where one might expect a royal birth to occur.
In the ancient world further East, in Persia and Babylonia, the magos was a wise man who specialized in the reading of the stars. In Israel, the king was also expected to have some of the qualities of the magos, or at least to be able to hire professionals to take on the part. A king who couldn’t predict events and signs, or have aides to do it for him, was an unworthy specimen of kingship. Herod, the so called Great, whose corrupt reign and decadent life were ending in the days of this tale, is not given high marks for moral prowess and enlightened rule and his priests and astrologers were scared stiff to give their boss the truth about the Messiah’s birthplace.
Then, sent on their way by a nervous and devious King Herod, the next night we may presume, the star hooked a sharp left turn to Bethlehem and then stopped as their destination came into sight: a simple house and, within it, the child born to be king. When they arrived were they disappointed to enter a humble household? Not at all, for Matthew says “they were overwhelmed with joy.” The Greek is even stronger: they rejoiced with an extreme joy. There they bowed and offered gifts laden with symbolic portent: gold for kingly power, incense for the presence of the divine, and Myrrh, both a powerful medicine for healing and an embalming agent for the dead.
It is kind of an extravagant tale, as if Matthew were determined to pull out all the stops, It might, with some justice, be called a tall tale
A Tall Tale or not, we only know that something remarkable happened on that day when the wider world first encountered the redeeming work of the God of Israel. And the gift to us is that the visit of the magi reveals something that has as much meaning for our lives today as it did in that first year of the first century. In the Epiphany, we can, if we follow the star, also have something that comes into sight for us, whoever we are and whatever we seek.
Here, the rich and the poor mingle in harmony. Here, for a moment, is the presence of the kingdom of God, which the grown Jesus would proclaim. Here, once again, is peace on earth and good will toward all people. Here, the rich, the educated, the respected are kneeling before a child and a mother, in a poor hamlet in Bethlehem. So different from Herod’s Jerusalem. So different from the centers of power and wealth of our own day.
If this is a Tall Tale, then it is one into which you and I can incorporate ourselves as truth is revealed, as it appears and shines forth. It is a tale that continued and, we believe, continues to our day. And will shine beyond our day into the future, no matter how many Herods come along. It is a tall tale that is just a part of another cosmically Tall Tale.