Epiphany, more than an Arabian night

Epiphany, celebrated by the Church on January 6th, is the manifestation or shining forth of Jesus: the revelation of who Jesus really is. The date may have been the first festival of the birth of Christ but, when that became fixed at 25th December, January 6th became associated with those parts of the gospel in which Jesus’s heavenly origins are revealed. In the eastern part of the Church the emphasis was, and is, on the baptism of Jesus and the words from heaven, ‘You are my beloved son … .’ This is reflected in the tradition of the blessing of water for baptism on this day. Our new calendar adopts this view by introducing a celebration of Jesus’s baptism on the first Sunday after Epiphany. Recent Anglican calendars have also used the Epiphany season to include another story associated with Epiphany in the wider Church, the disclosure of Jesus’s divine origins in the miracle of water to wine at Cana (John 2: 1-11).

However in the western Church we have tended to confine Epiphany to Matthew’s account of the coming of the Magi, or Wise Men, led by a miraculous star, to the infant Christ. We rightly see this as the primary manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.

Matthew’s account, in Matt. 2:1-12, assumes that Mary and Joseph live at Bethlehem and that Jesus was born in their house there; Luke has the census story and implications of Jesus’s birth in a stable, though he does not actually say so. Although Matthew mentions three gifts, he does not say that there were only three men. He calls them ‘magi’, a term which covers a wide range from the scholarly to the charlatan. Matthew probably inclines to the former, the magi being serious astronomers / astrologers to whom God has revealed who Jesus is through their skills. At the back of Matthew’s story of pagan sages inspired by God is the story in Numbers 22-24 of the magus Balaam, also brought from the east (Num. 23:7) by a wicked king and given an authentic spirit of prophecy by God, involving a rising star (24:17). The ‘east’ may just mean the exotic place that the magi come from; but Matthew may have Persia or Babylon in mind.

The star is a mixture of Matthew’s reflection on the Balaam story and folk memory of various astronomical phenomena around the time of Jesus’s birth (c. 7 B.C.E. as we calculate things). There was an appearance of Halley’s comet I 12 B.C.E. and three conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter, with Mars passing shortly after in 7-6 B.C.E. Of course, these are nothing like Matthew’s star; but nothing could be like a star that visibly moves and is low enough to point out a particular house, which apparently only the magi have noticed! Matthew’s point is that however obscure Jesus’s life, at his birth there were signs and portents, as there were at his death (Matt. 27:45ff) and in both cases Gentiles rather than Jews took the hint (27:54).

Matthew’s treatment of the authorities of Jerusalem also involves folk memory of the end of the reign of Herod. Herod was actually quite a good ruler of the Jews, though they did not always appreciate it; but towards the end of his life he became suspicious to the point of paranoia, seeing plots everywhere and given to eliminating possible pretenders ruthlessly. Again, Matthew wants to show the Gentiles as acting on the Jewish scripture (Micah 5:1 and II Sam. 5:2) rather than being blind to it as those to whom it has been given are. Rather than rejoicing at Jesus’s birth (Matt. 2:10) the king of The Jews acts like the mirror image of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Jesus like Moses survives a massacre of Israelite children; and like Israel of old, Jesus goes into Egypt to survive, protected by a man of dreams called Joseph. So Matthew brings out two themes of his gospel: Jesus the new Moses, Jesus the new Israel.

The gifts of the magi have been given specific significance by later Christian piety; but for Matthew the background of scripture in Isaiah 60, especially verses 3, 6 and 9, and Psalm 72:10-11 and 15 is more important. There may also be a hint of Jesus as Son of David. Foreign rulers from the east came to visit David’s son Solomon and in the Old Testament myrrh is associated with frankincense in texts associated with Solomon such as Song of Songs.

Overall the magi with their whiff of eastern promise provide a much deeper set of conclusions than merely an exotic story rarely heard in its correct context. In their journey we are shown how it is that Jesus is the son of Abraham in whom the nations are blessed. We are warned that those with no prior commitments can find and do true homage to Jesus, while those with all the advantages of revelation can secretly work against him. Does this have a particular message for our time? The magi are not ‘converted’ but do homage and return home to their own beliefs and culture. Perhaps we should accept the homage that Muslims and Hindus are prepared to give to Jesus without pressing them further? The death of the ‘innocents’ raises not only the continuing deaths of the uninvolved, children and others, through violence, hunger and disease in our world but, more profoundly, how is God concerned in this? What kind of God protects his Son through the shedding of children’s blood?

But perhaps we should end with a more light-hearted point to ponder. Is Isaiah 60:6 the origin of our belief that the wise men rode on camels?

Clarence Rickards

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 10th January 2004