Christmas has always been my favorite time of year and so there has always been something disappointing about this time of year for me. After all the preparation, feasting, and visiting with family and friends, the Christmas season is finally coming to close. The Christmas tree is dismantled and taken down, and the lights and decorations packed away. It will now be an entire year before the festivities begin again. Christmas seems an almost magical season full of Joy and hope, but it doesn’t last. Soon everything returns to normal as if nothing has happened. Christmas is over, but the winter has really just begun.
I’m sure I am not the only way who feels this way. Elvis Presley asks in his popular song,
Oh, why can't every day be like Christmas?
Why can't that feeling go on endlessly?
For if every day could be just like Christmas
What a wonderful world this would be.
Perhaps that is the problem, though: we are trying desperately to hold on to a feeling when what we need to do is anchor ourselves in the fact of Christmas. Feelings are elusive; they come and go, but the fact is that everything really is different because of Christmas day.
Although the song of Angels and that child born in a manger that winter night seem only a pleasant dream that we have awaken from, they are in fact more real than what we ordinarily take for reality. These are the indications of a reality hoped for but not seen. However, we live by faith and not by sight.
Christmas is followed by Epiphany, a season too often lost between the festivities of Christmas and the marathon of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. It is, however, an important reminder as we trudge through the bitterness of winter that seems to last forever. What is it all about? The word “Epiphany” means “manifestation” or “appearance.” It connotes a flash of light, a sudden insight or perception into things hidden. In the church, it marks the celebration of those moments in the earthly life of Jesus in which we are given a glimpse of his glory and divinity. These are moments of assurance of the fact of Christmas, that God is with us and has lived among us.
Our celebration of Epiphany begins tonight with the commemoration of one such moment in particular. The journey of the Magi—also known as the Three Kings or Wise Men—their visitation of the home of Joseph and Mary, and their adoration of the Christ Child.
This scene has captivated the imagination of people for centuries. It has been much celebrated in art, literature, popular culture, and Christmas kitsch. Our gospel reading tonight tells us very little about these foreign dignitaries. It doesn’t even tell us how many they were, let alone their names. Tradition, however, has solidified their number at three, no doubt because of the three gifts mentioned, although some eastern Churches—the Syrian Church in particular—number them as many as twelve! Our tradition in The West has also given us three names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Who were these men and why is their visit so significant?
It is important for us to understand that these men were not Jews but were Gentiles from far off nations. The term Matthew uses, Magi, refers to a priestly caste from the Old Persian Empire particularly renowned for their knowledge of astrology, which was highly regarded in the ancient world. Their identification as Kings comes from Psalm 72, which we just read, which refers to kings bowing down before the Messiah and paying him tribute. Once again, tradition identifies Caspar as a king of India, Melchoir as a king of Persia, and Balthazar as a king of Arabia.
The prophet Isaiah also predicted the journey of these illustrious guests. In our reading today, he writes, “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Reference is even made to the gifts they will bring in tribute.
He writes, “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.”
You may be thinking, “Isaiah mentions Gold and Frankincense, but what about the Myrrh?” The Gold reveals to us that the baby in the manger is a king, Frankincense--a herb commonly used for divine worship—revels to us that he is God incarnate, but Matthew includes the third gift Myrrh to reveal that this child was born to die. Myrrh was an aromatic resin commonly used to prepare the dead for burial. Matthew here is foreshadowing the fact that Jesus will suffer death for our redemption, an event which was also foretold by Isaiah in another place where he speaks of a suffering servant who will redeem Israel.
The Lordship and divinity of Jesus is revealed in this scene, but something more as well. The further significance of this moment is proclaimed by Saint Paul in our Epistle reading tonight. He speaks of a mystery hidden for generations but revealed in Christ. “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit,” he writes, “that is, that the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
The advent of Israel’s God as King and redeemer is good news not only for Israel but the whole world. The inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant was not an addition made at some later time, but rather it was God’s plan from the very beginning. Israel was called by God for the sake of the world.
God is more than a tribal deity narrowly associated with one particular people in one specific location, rather he is the one God of heaven and Earth, the universal Father of all humanity who created us to be his sons and daughters and has come to claim us as his children in Jesus Christ. Jesus was born to destroy the dividing wall of hostility that separates nation from nation and unite us all in one body.
Not only was Jesus the long awaited messiah of Jewish people, he was the one that every nation had been longing for. As the true light that enlightens all who comes into the world, Jesus is the truth that every religious system—however incompletely—is straining towards. Although God revealed himself to Israel in a unique way and called them to be his covenant people, the Magi show us that there were sincere seekers after God outside of Israel as well. Jesus’ birth is good news for them, too.
All of humanity has suffered under the anxiety of how it can find the mercy and favor of God. We have lived as exiles from our true identity and calling as his children and heirs of his promise. The message of the Gospel is that, apart from anything we have done, God has redeemed us in Christ and made us his own. He has declared peace to us on whom his favor rest.
Far too often we fail to recognize this proclamation of reconciliation or to receive it as good news for us. The weight of our sins and the reality of continuing estrangement weighs heavily upon us. God’s love does not feel real to us. Winter is long, and it feels as if the sun will never return to warm the earth. In those rare moments, however, the clouds parts and we realize the sun is always shinning even if it is hidden from our eyes.
We who have seen this light and received this truth have a job to do. God has called us to be heralds of this good news to all the world. Jesus is Lord and he has made peace through the blood of his cross. Let us not grow slack, but encourage one another. We have boldness and confidence through faith in him. Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. Let all the nations be glad and Kings come to the brightness of his glory!