What We Can Learn About Epiphany

by Jean-Daniel Williams

Version française

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem… They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honoured him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 
Matthew 2:1, 11 CEB

The sacred epiphany story of the wisemen, the three kings, Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior, bringing the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, each with rich symbolic and even prophetic meaning has been so repeated and sung and painted that longtime Christians could be understood for a bored "I know this story already" eye-roll.

But a closer inspection of Matthew—and of all the Gospels only Matthew mentions the "wise men"—reveals that much of what "we know" we do not "know" at all. We do not know who they were, in either the sense of knowing their roles or their names, where exactly they came from,  how long their journey was, and why they gave what they gave except to "honour," or in some translations, "worship," the child Jesus. And for such important people in our Christian tradition and liturgy, it is striking that we never hear from or about them again.

In untangling what we "know" from Matthew with what we "know" from later traditions, we can begin with the word "wisemen" itself.

Sometimes Biblical scholars play it theologically safe and use the anglicised Greek word "magi," but as commonly we say "wisemen." When we encounter this same Greek word, μάγος (magos), in Acts 13, most English translations say "magician" or "sorcerer." That is uncomfortable. Perhaps because magician and sorcerer are not good things, at least not Biblically for the ancients or intellectually for modern readers. Possibly demonic, anti-scientific, ridiculous. 

But let's put aside that bias for a moment. What would ancient people regard as "magic"? Perhaps natural phenomena beyond their own understanding. That seems to be happening in this story. The magi attentively paid attention to the sky. They know the patterns. Stars, in their multitudes, to paraphrase Javert would in Les Misérables, know their place in the sky, hold their course and their aim, and each in its season returned. And the magi knew those places and courses and seasons. And then something happened, a star appeared, that was out of place entirely. According to Matthew they concluded that something so out-of-the-ordinary was a symbol or sign for something out-of-the-ordinary, and they set out to investigate. Wise indeed! 

What about the men part of wisemen? Greek has grammatical gender, so we know males were present in this travelling party because the Bible uses a masculine, plural form. But Biblical Greek, like French, would use a masculine plural for a mixed-gender group. It is possible that women were among the wise seekers. As far as the detail of the "three" wisemen? There were three presents, but no mention of an exact party size. Many Eastern Christian traditions speak of twelve magi to pick another symbolic but arguably arbitrary number.

Where did they come from? Matthew only offers a generic "East." In Western Christian tradition, there have emerged names for the magi, places of origin, ages. Based on the gifts and the travel, we can assume they are wealthy, or at least the leaders of the group were, a contrast to Luke's emphasis on shepherds. Some, trying to ground the Matthean story in history have argued they must have been Zoroastrians, ancient Persian monotheists, and the Greek word behind the magi does get used for that religion, but so far textual evidence suggests that usage come centuries after Matthew wrote.  The most common traditions name them as Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. Stories of their diverse origins abound, too. One from Persia, one from India, one from Babylon or Ethiopia. Stories emerged that they represent different ages of men, one being elderly, one middle aged, one youthful. By the third century, Syriac apocrypha emerged with more details. Christians continued to add to and evolve the mythology based on so few verses. 

The apocryphal stories and the literary and artistic and even theological traditions that have emerged are interesting, and they are worthwhile as time capsules of "what the magi meant" to communities of the past. The impulse to make them ethnically diverse and a wide range of ages is a moving statement on the universality of what this child Jesus offers the world. And maintaining a connection to those traditions connects us to Christians of the past. For all my protestations that we don't know the magi's names or that there were three, I unapologetically chalked "20 C M B 16" on my door frame. Aside from questions of historic fact, there is holiness in the tradition.

There is also holiness in the simplicity of the Biblical narrative. There is a sacred example in these magi. We do not know their names, the details of their background, or even their religious beliefs. So what do we have?

People from afar saw something unexpected. A star. They may not have fully understood its meaning. Someone deduced a king was born, but even then, did they know have a comprehensive and in-depth theological awareness of the implications of the birth of Jesus? I suspect not. They had an experience. They had a feeling about it. And then, they decided to follow that start, to follow that experience, together, giving their time and their treasures to be with one another a journey that led them to the feet of Jesus.

This previous Sunday, as I was preaching this epiphany story, I looked at the people in the pews of my urban, Montréal congregation. I saw people from countless countries, multiple native languages, the gamut of socioeconomic status, a whole range of careers and formal education, gender identity, sexual orientation, racial identities, Canadian citizens and new immigrants,  children to the elderly. I saw people who I knew to be Nicean-creed-memorising traditional, orthodox Christians and people I knew to doubting or agnostic. But everyone there had a "star" moment, when out of the ordinary patterns of life, something provoked them into the church, where together, at the Communion rail, we would all approach Jesus. We did not start at the same places in our spiritual journeys, but like the magi, we were journeying together and brought to the presence of Jesus together. 

May the unexpected stars God sends into our lives stir us to move, to travel, to give, side by side with one another, so that we may always be united in the presence of Christ.