Sermons That Work

The Realm of Light, Feast of Epiphany – 2007

January 06, 2007

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. This liturgical season resides also in symbolism, something people in the east seem to understand much more easily than we in the West. The presence of water in Epiphany is as meaningful as that of light, perhaps reminding us that this was the preferred time for baptism in the early church. On Epiphany Day in every port city in Greece, the Orthodox bishop throws a cross into the waters of the sea and brave young men jump into the cold January Aegean to retrieve it. In offices and homes, round loaves of Epiphany bread are broken and shared. Light, bread, the cross, and water. The magi are hardly mentioned.

In the ancient world further East, in Persia and Babylonia, the magos (which is the singular of magi) was a wise man who specialized in the reading of the stars. In Israel, the king, as we heard in the Psalm for today, was expected to have qualities of the magos—there was a mystical association with the supernatural in the Jewish tradition. As it says in Numbers 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near—a star shall come out of Jacob, and scepter shall rise out of Israel.”

So when we tie all these symbols together, we enter into another world where reality is more than what is seen, where light reveals more than the eye can take in. Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding.

Only Matthew among the four gospel writers tells the wondrous story of the magi. No matter that wise men and women of today try to explain it away, or literalists try to discover exactly what happened in the astronomical realm; the wonder, yes, even the good magic of the story remains undiminished. How can we hear it without becoming children again, feeling that first thrill that ran through our little bodies when the story first entered our consciousness? The Eastern kings, dressed in many-colored robes, the camels moving ponderously over long stretches of sand, the star so bright, with its long glowing tail leading them, leading them toward a humble hamlet called Bethlehem—these remain in our consciousness.

One wonders if the story came down to Matthew from someone who remembered it from the palace, who passed it on from parent to child. Maybe it was someone who recalled the bloodshed in that palatial, miserable household — how Herod, who had not wanted to leave his throne to anyone, was shocked with fear when he considered that an heir other than his sons would inherit it. How the Jewish chief priests and scribes trembled before Herod’s wrath when asked for the prophecy of the birthplace of Messiah. How frightened Herod was that the town mentioned by the prophet Micah was Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem and how he ordered his servants into a conspiracy of false hospitality. The story must have been told again and again until it reached Matthew years later, and it was such a marvelous story that Matthew could not resist it. It was a blessed choice for millions of readers and listeners through the centuries.

After months of traveling through the desert, the magi arrive first at the palace in Jerusalem—they were expecting to find a king, after all, so the first place they think of is the palace—and thus give the shock of his life to Herod who, cunningly, sends them on to find this child. When they reach Bethlehem, do they feel disappointment to enter a humble household? Matthew says “they were overwhelmed with joy.” The Greek is even stronger: they rejoiced with an extreme joy.

They see the child with his mother. She is holding him on her lap as they kneel and bend to touch their foreheads to the ground. What is Mary thinking when she sees the gifts they offer? Does she feel a premonition when she smells the myrrh, an herb used for burial? Later in her life, will she stand at the foot of the terrible cross remembering that beautiful visit and the premonition of his death?

We can only guess. We only know that something remarkable happened on that day when the far east and the near east came together. But the gift to us is that the visit of the magi reveals something else that has as much meaning for our lives today as it did in that first year of the first century. The rich and the poor mingle in harmony in this story. The rich don’t withhold from the poor; they offer not only necessities, but luxury and beauty. For a few minutes, there is a strong hint of the kingdom of God the grown Jesus would proclaim—peace on earth, good will toward all people, mercy to the poor—the acknowledgment of the full humanity of the poor, of women, and of children (which was an alien concept in the ancient world). The rich, the educated, the respected are kneeling before a child and a mother, in a poor hamlet in Bethlehem.

May that image stay with us to give balance to our thinking, to our lives.

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Christopher Sikkema


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