When most people hear the word epiphany, the don’t think of the twelfth day after Christmas, or about the story of the wise men coming from various lands to see the baby Jesus. Instead, when most people think of the word epiphany, they think of an “aha!” moment like when Archimedes got into a bathtub and realized he could measure the volume of irregular shapes with their displacement in water and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse yelling “Eureka!”. Or they think of something a bit more well known, like when the apple fell from the tree and hit poor Isaac Newton on the head and led him to discover the law of gravity.
These are valid definitions of epiphanies, and the word comes from the Greek word that means “to reveal.” When Archimedes and Newton had these moments, something was revealed to them. But the word specifically refers to the “manifestation of the divine or supernatural” in this world. And that’s why the moment the wise men come to Bethlehem and visit the baby Jesus is called the Epiphany, because it was then that the divine was revealed to them.
But today’s Gospel includes more than just this epiphany. There were a few epiphanies and aha moments in the reading today, as well as a missed opportunity to encounter the divine.
Let’s take a look at these wise men in the scripture today:
Many scholars assume that these men would have been very educated men – academics if you will – who lived in a foreign land, and who may have been leftovers from the Jewish exiles to places like Babylon, or just people who had emigrated from Israel. They were men who studied the Jewish scriptures, and because of this would have known the approximate timeframe of the birth of the coming Messiah.
In many ways, this trip was more of an academic exercise. Kind of like, “The messiah was born – according to our estimations – so let’s go see if we were correct in our assumptions.” If they had followed the typical understanding of the Messiah of their day, they would have expected a true king, a worldly ruler, and so this long journey may very well have really been about finding favor with a future ruler, to “pay him homage” as the reading for today says.
Now, their stop in Jerusalem brings us our first example of the divine making itself known in the world. These men, we see, had correctly read the signs of when the Messiah would be born, but we also see that that they do not have a full understanding of the prophecy because in their audience with Herod and the Jewish Leaders, they are asking specifically about where the child who was “the King of the Jews” would be born.
Now, take a moment to think about this question. These wise men are standing in the court of the King of the Jews – King Herod – and are asking where the King of the Jews was born. Clearly, this is still more of an academic exercise for these men, since they’re risking insulting the current King of the Jews by asking this question.
But, thankfully, they don’t incur the wrath of Herod at this point, and we know that the chief priests and the pharisees in Jerusalem tell them that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
Now, this is where things get interesting. Foreigners have discerned God’s work in the world, and King Herod’s own religious leaders have further expanded their knowledge of the Messiah by telling these men where the child would be born.
These men, these foreigners, had, essentially, through their study and understanding of the scripture been invited to the birth of the messiah, and he, Herod, the King of the Jews, had not.
This was an aha! moment for King Herod, because he realized that he was not nearly as important as he believed himself to be, because he too should have received an invitation to this event.
And so what does he do? The scripture tells us that he responded with fear, “and all Jerusalem with him.”
After the scribes and pharisees have gone away, he asks the wise men in secret both when the star appeared, and also that when they find the child that they report back to him so that he too can pay homage to the child. And, while not in today’s reading, we know that the reason he asked for the exact time the star appeared and the reason why he asked the wise men to report back to him is that he intended to kill all the male children that were born around this time.
God’s will had manifested itself. God had revealed his plan to King Herod and instead of reacting with joy, Herod felt threatened. He felt that this child was a threat to the power he had as King of the Jews, and he reacted with fear, and with hatred, and looked for ways to kill the child and thwart the will of God.
Now, while King Herod’s reaction is the most obvious in readings concerning the wise men, I think we also see a missed opportunity for an encounter with the Divine, a missed opportunity for an aha moment. When the wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, they made clear that they had interpreted the scripture and the star to mean that the Messiah, the King of the Jews had been born. And yet, despite this information, when King Herod called in the chief priests and the pharisees, these religious advisors did nothing more than their duty and passed on information to those foreigners requesting the information.
What they didn’t do is ask to join the wise men on their quest to seek out the Messiah.
Think about this for a moment. The religious leaders of the Jewish faith heard the wise men say that they had interpreted the scriptures and the star to mean that the Messiah was born, and instead of asking to join the wise men, they simply did nothing, and went back about their business.
And this is an important distinction.
These men were confronted with a revelation of the divine in this world, and instead of reacting with fear and hatred like King Herod did, these men reacted with apathy. I can only imagine that these men would be joking about “those silly foreigners who think they understand more about our religion than we do.”
They reacted with apathy.
Apathy is a far worse reaction to a revelation of God’s will in this world than hatred, because hatred means that you actually believe, but you do not want to give up control to God, while apathy means you don’t even care that God has made His will known to you and the world.
But now think about this if you will: these men that reacted with apathy were the chief priests and religious leaders of Jerusalem. They might not have found the interpretation of the wise men to be valid, and reacted with apathy to the revelation of the birth of the Messiah at this time. But, I can guarantee you that some of these men were living 30 years later. And, when these men were confronted with the grown up Messiah working miracles and disobeying the Sabbath regulations they reacted with hatred and fear, just as King Herod did. Why? Because they too felt threatened by the revelation of God’s will in the world, a revelation that would limit their power and prestige. That divine revelation became a divine manifestation of God’s will in this world as soon as Jesus began his ministry.
Suddenly the revelation of the divine in the world was no longer a concept, but a reality, and that reality conflicted with the reality that the Jewish leaders wanted.
But this gospel is less about King Herod and less about the chief priests and pharisees and their varied responses to divine revelation, and more about the wise men, and how they reacted.
After King Herod told them to please return to him and tell him where the child was, the wise men set out on their way and headed to Bethlehem where the Jewish religious leaders had sent them.
And this is where we find the true epiphany of today’s Gospel reading.
When they entered the house, they found the mother and her child there, and they bent down and paid the child homage, presenting him with the gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh – gifts you would present to another person of noble birth.
Now, the Greek word that was translated as ‘homage’ here means ‘to pay respect as to one’s human superiors.’ Pay respect, as to a king. But still, a human king. In another context, this word is used to define paying respect to a divine being, which is why some Bibles translate this word as ‘worshipped.’ But here, in this passage, the word does not indicate the divine.
You see, at that very moment when they first entered the house where they saw the child with his mother, they were still expecting the earthly king, an earthly Messiah, someone to be the King of the Jews and be the salvation of his people through military might. That was the expected result of their studies and their understanding of the scriptures and the cultural expectation of their time.
But, as they spent time with the child they slowly came to grasp what was going on and they experienced a true epiphany, and they say to themselves:
“This is no human child”, and
“This is no earthly king,” and
“This … is not at all what we were expecting.”
And then, at that moment, homage becomes worship.
At that moment, respect for a superior becomes reverence for the divine.
They had promised King Herod to return back by way of Jerusalem and share with him the knowledge of the Christ child, but after this encounter with the divine, they are changed. They are warned in a dream that they are not to return to Jerusalem to Herod, and they comply and go home by a different road.
These men, noblemen, would have been expected to follow the rules of nobility. As foreigners, they would have been expected to be diplomatic in a foreign land. As people who gave a promise to another king, they would have been expected to return.
Instead, they left for home by a different road, risking the anger of King Herod for having deceived him with a promise that they can no longer keep.
That sort of change in behavior can only come when you’ve had an experience with the divine. That behavior comes about when your understanding of Christ becomes more than just an academic exercise, just like the encounter these wise men had.
An encounter with the divine changes you.
So where does that leave us today?
We are unlikely to be confronted by foreign academics seeking to know where the king of the Jews will be born, or unlikely to enter a house and see the son of God resting in his mother’s arms.
But, God still works in this world, and the divine still reveals itself to us in many different ways. <pause – shorter>
Here in the Western Churches, our Epiphany celebrations tend to focus around the Wise Men, and our celebrations might include little plastic kings cooked into fancy cakes, and they may include some additional gifts for the kids on the last day of Christmas.
But in the Eastern Churches, they tend to include the Baptism of Jesus in the Epiphany celebration, because that too was a revelation of the divine. And because they focus on the baptism of Jesus, their celebrations lean much more toward spiritual renewal and rebirth.
As you enter this new year, be on the lookout for encounters or revelations of the divine in your own lives.
Every Eucharist, we say together the Lord’s Prayer. In that prayer are the lines, “Your Kingdom Come, Your Will Be Done.”
Our lives can be sprinkled with epiphanies, moments of divine revelation where God’s Kingdom does come and make itself known to us. And sometimes those moments can spark new life in us, and give us hope because they are an understanding that surpasses the context of our immediate situation and gives us clarity and purpose for the future. Will we grasp on to this revelation and say, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done,” just as the wise men did?
At other times, these epiphanies can be revelations of the divine in our lives that go against our own wishes and against our own desires. They are revelations of God moving in a way that will make our will subject to His will. They are revelations of God that show us that we are not in control, but that he is. These too provide a certain amount of clarity, but that clarity comes in direct confrontation with our own desires. Will we react as Herod did and say, “My kingdom come, my will be done”?
Or, will we be so distracted, or will we think that we have a good enough grasp on our own lives that we don’t need any divine help that we don’t even notice when the divine reveals itself to us, just like those apathetic chief priests and pharisees?
God will continue to reveal his plans in this world.
And we will continue to have the opportunity to encounter the divine in this world.
Those things will never change.
But let us pray that we will, and that when we encounter the divine, that we will simply respond, “Your Kingdom Come, Your Will be Done.”
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.