Yesterday, January 6, was Epiphany. One of my readers - hi Marne! - asked me to delve into Epiphany, and I had planned to do just that yesterday afternoon. And then all hell broke loose at the United States Capitol and I, like so many, was glued to the TV in heartbreak and horror. I am still trying to understand how we got here and how we get out of this mess we are in. Some of us need "epiphanies," but I'm afraid that those on each side will say that it is people on the other side who need them.
All we can do is pray, and I have been praying. For peace. For guidance and wisdom. For safety. For success for President-elect Biden and Vice-President elect Harris. For grace for President Trump. I pray for the families of those who died. I pray for the law enforcement officers. I pray for those who have to clean up the building, and those who were going about their business and got caught up in terror. I pray for black and brown people who recognized that these insurrectionists were treated more civilly than those who have protested the violence perpetrated against those black and brown bodies. I pray that we will finally have the courage to hold people who look like us accountable. I pray for my country, that we will come to a reckoning and make some badly needed changes. I am told to pray for my enemies, so I am praying for those who stormed the Capitol yesterday. I am praying for all of those who incited, by commission or omission, this insurrection. And I don't know what else I can do now.
So I am going to write about Epiphany.
Epiphany, in the liturgical or church calendar, is 12 days after Christmas, on January 6. It is traditionally believed to be the day that the three kings arrived to worship Jesus. In some cultures Three Kings Day is celebrated with parades and feasting, and the children leave their shoes outside their doors and wake to find presents in them. This is to commemorate the arrival in Bethlehem of the kings, or wise men, or magi. No one really knows who they were.
And I just read that if you leave your Christmas tree up past epiphany it is bad luck. Oops - I guess this is all my fault because I hate taking the Christmas tree down.
So according to Matthew, chapter 2, after Jesus was born there was an unusual star in the sky, and the kings (I'll call them kings, only because that is easier to type) were following the star. They arrived at King Herod's palace and asked where they might find the child who had been born, "king of the Jews." Matthew doesn't tell us how the kings knew this odd star portended the birth of the Messiah. Herod, and all the Jews, were frightened at this news, because Herod perceived a threat to his reign. Herod consulted his advisers, who said that scriptures said the baby would be born in Bethlehem. He called the kings in, told them they wanted to go to Bethlehem, and said when they found the baby to come back and tell him where so he could go worship the Messiah, too.
So the kings went to Bethlehem, found Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and gave them gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The kings were overjoyed, and they weren't also called wise men for nothing. They had a dream (all of them? If I'm in a group of three and we all have the same dream I will pay attention, too!) that they should return home by another route and not go back to Herod.
Herod wanted this new baby king out of his way and set out to kill him. When he couldn't find the exact baby because Joseph also had a dream and took Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety, he killed all the babies under two in and around Bethlehem. This is called the Slaughter of the Innocents. Jesus and Mary remained in Egypt until Herod died. We don't hear any more of Joseph, so presumably he died in Egypt.
Who were the three kings?
Matthew doesn't record their names, but over time they have come to be called Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. They came from the East, so they may have been from what is now Iraq, Iran (formerly Persia), Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, or China. Frankincense was traded on the Arabian Peninsula at that time (Wikipedia, 2021), which supports them being Arabian. As the song goes, "We three kings, of Orient are." The Orient, according to the dictionary on Bing, includes Japan, China, Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. So they could have come from a wide range of locales. We also don't know how they knew each other.
The label of "kings" didn't occur until much later. People began calling them kings around 200 AD. They are also known as wise men - they did notice an odd star, after all, and had studied enough to know that this star indicated the birth of a Messiah. Since they were not from Israel, we can be fairly certain they were not Jewish. They must have been wealthy, since gold, at least, was expensive even then.
Other references refer to them as "magi." Interestingly, I encountered this word, "magi," as I was reading the book of Daniel the other day. In Daniel, magi referred to the wise men, sorcerers, magicians and fortune tellers of Nebuchadnezzar's court. Magi also refers to a caste of priests in Persia. I think these are other indications that the men were wise and educated. Given that the volumes of the knowledge of humankind were much fewer then, it makes sense to me that wise men were considered magical. Wise women were killed as witches.
So Epiphany refers to the last day of Christmas and the day the wise men arrived in Bethlehem. Epiphany with a small "e" refers to a new understanding or insight, or a visit from the divine. Some people are spiritual, or mystics, and have epiphanies frequently. Some of us feel blessed to have one. Many of us use the word to describe an idea, as in, "I had an epiphany last night. Here's what I think we should do."
Here is the epiphany I have had about Epiphany. The angels appeared to the shepherds and brought good news of great joy. The shepherds were Jews, and were the lowest of the low as far as social hierarchies went at the time. Clearly, Jesus was sent to minister to the poor and the outcast. The wise men, on the other hand, were wealthy, educated, and Gentile. They were overjoyed to find the baby Jesus. Clearly Jesus was sent to minister to the wealthy, educated, and non-Jews.
Jesus' ministry was and is to all of us, whether we believe or not, whether we look or smell or dress "right" or not, whether we follow the rules or don't, whether we are men or women, whether black, white or any shade in between, and whether we are rich or poor. All of us. And that is an epiphany worth sharing, the day after one group of people violently insisted that they know better than the rest of us what is true and right. The "Jesus" flags that were waving yesterday at the Capital don't represent the Jesus I know, because the Jesus I know would never exclude anyone from His kingdom.
Listen carefully, because not all magi are wise. Nor are all kings. Listen carefully to the word of God for an epiphany of your own.
Now I must take my Christmas tree down.
Three Kings silhouette. https://selfhelpafrica.org/uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2018/10/three-kings-silhouette-card.jpg?x41935. Accessed January 7, 2021
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, January 5). Frankincense. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:50, January 7, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Frankincense&oldid=998506661
Zavada, Jack. (2020, August 27). Meet the Three Kings - Wise Men From the East. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/three-kings-wise-men-from-the-east-701082. Accessed January 7, 2021.