The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Welcome to Epiphany Sunday! No Christmas pageant ever seems fully complete until the Wise Men make their appearance, arriving at the stable, bearing gifts for the infant Christ. It’s tempting to think of today as the completion of the Pageant—the end of the Christmas story. It looks so cozy, doesn’t it, with those wise men in the stable—offering their gifts, gazing at the manger and adoring this child who will be king—with Mary and Joseph, and some farm animals looking protectively on.
But, perhaps, those Wise Men warrant a bit more contemplation. For, despite the brightness of the star hovering over Bethlehem, there is darkness in this story—hints of tragedy to come. In addition to angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest” and shepherds watching over their flocks by night, the story of the magi, ultimately is a tragic story of ruthless power and infanticide. This too is part of the story of the incarnation. King Herod looms in the background.
Herod didn’t come from any royal heritage. In fact, he was an ethnic outsider, his family, having converted to Judaism just one generation before he took the throne. Herod was a “puppet leader”, installed by the Roman state, and given the title “King of the Jews” when he received their backing. Obsessed with power and paranoid, when trying to protect himself, he could be absolutely brutal. Herod’s track record shows the extent of his paranoia. In total, he killed 300 public officials, 2 of his sons, whom he strangled, and one of his wives, all on the suspicion that they were plotting conspiracies against him.
So, it is no wonder that Matthew writes in his Gospel that when the Wise Men arrived and spoke of the brightness of the star in the heavens that not only was Herod afraid, but all of Jerusalem was frightened as well. Surely they would be. They knew what he was capable of. That star, for many—wasn’t an omen of good things to come, but a portent of disaster.
And, if you were inclined to view stars from this perspective, you would find yourself in good company. The ancient historian Josephus noted that a star stood over the city of Jerusalem just before its fall in 70 AD. And there were many who thought that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, just nine years later, had been caused by a comet. Likewise, the appearance of a star in the sky over England in 1066, just before the Battle of Hastings, was seen as a dark omen of what was to come. Not to be left out, some people apparently even blamed a star for the fall of the Alamo.
But here is another way of looking at stars and the darkness which surrounds them. When the heavens themselves begin to defy prediction, there is no telling what might happen. We must be open to possibilities. In other words, rather than simply focusing on what is in front or behind us, we would do well to look up and pay attention, trusting God to lead us through whatever darkness may come, into a place of light and peace.
This season of Epiphany, that we are entering today, reminds us that we are called to live our lives in a new light. This is a light that illuminates the darkness around us and gifts us with a perspective that we didn’t have before. And with this perspective, we are challenged to chart our journey’s based on what we now know to be true.
Consider those Wise Men, who looked to a star and found Christ. Surely, as Gentiles, this child, born in a stable wasn’t what they were anticipating, but their hearts were open enough to be willing to seek their king in the unexpected places, which is precisely where they found him.
But their story doesn’t end here. In the final sentence of today’s gospel we are told: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Having found the infant Christ, doesn’t mean that evil has lost its sway. Their journey, as I see it, wasn’t over the moment they presented their gifts to the holy child—in some ways, it was just beginning. What do the Wise Men do now with the knowledge they have gained? Looking into the future, how would their lives be changed? What do they see, years later—when they look ahead and behind and up, into the sky? What is true of them, some two thousand years in the past, is also true of ourselves. Having found our God—how do we now choose to live our lives? How does knowing and following Jesus, the Light of the World, change the path we are now on?
The poet Ann Weems writes these words, appropriate for encouragement as we continue to journey beyond this epiphany moment. She writes:
Into this silent night
as we make our weary way
we know not where,
just when the night becomes its darkest
and we cannot see our path,
is when the angels rush in,
their hands full of stars.
Epiphanies are moments of illumination. They help us to perceive the essential nature or meaning of something. And, the truth is, they are not relegated only to Wise Men traveling over the desert. Epiphanies arrive in all shapes and sizes. In this holy season, we see them revealed by angels, stars, and in newborn babies. When we receive them, they show us another road to follow—a door, which, if opened, leads us into new possibilities. Epiphany reminds us that we can live our lives in a new light—that we are no longer beholden to the powers of this world, but in the light of Christ, we can see all things—even ourselves, in new ways. Give us, O Christ, the power to follow where you lead. In Jesus’ name. Amen.