The Christian calendar marks the observance of various feasts and celebrations throughout the year. January 6 is the day on which the Christian church celebrates Epiphany. The Season of Epiphany then extends until the day before Ash Wednesday. Epiphany means manifestation or appearance. It is a time in which the church focuses on the divine presence as manifested in Jesus Christ in New Testament times and the implications of that manifestation for today. The season is an occasion to contemplate the unfolding of the revelation of God’s presence on earth through his son, Jesus Christ. It is a time to watch and wait as the mystery and glory of the presence of God in our midst is unveiled. What will it look like for God to walk among us? How will Jesus manifest God to the watching world?
The first event that is traditionally commemorated on the Day of Epiphany itself is the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12. The Magi journey from the east to find the one who has been born King of the Jews. When they arrive in Jerusalem, they inquire as to where they might find Jesus so that they might worship him. They are uncertain exactly where he is, but they are determined to find him, as that is the entire purpose of their long journey.
Their requests for help in their search ultimately lead them to King Herod. Herod is also interested in finding this King of the Jews. But Herod is not motivated by a desire to worship Jesus; rather, he is motivated by a desire to eliminate this potential threat to his own position as king of the Jews and the life of comfort and power that goes along with this position. Herod is an unlikely and unexpected guidepost on the Magi’s journey, pointing them in the right direction.
As the Magi set out for Bethlehem, they were again guided by the star that had pointed them to Israel in the first place. Seeing that star and knowing they were headed in the right direction brought them great joy. The star led them unerringly to the house where the young child was. I wonder if the Magi had expected God to be manifest as a seemingly ordinary young child with his mother living in an ordinary house. Jesus was not surrounded by any royal trappings; his appearance was likely not particularly unusual. Yet the Magi bowed down and worshiped Jesus, offering him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They knew they had reached their destination and found the one for whom they had been looking. They worshiped Jesus not because of what he looked like or what he did or any royal attire or surroundings. They worshiped him because of who he was.
In another unexpected turn of events, these Magi from the east were the first humans explicitly stated to have worshiped Jesus. This manifestation of God was to the Gentiles, not the Jews. And, having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another way. The first part of their journey was a search to find and worship Jesus. But the journey did not end there. They were sent back to the east with their newfound knowledge, to live in light of the manifestation of the presence of God that they had seen and experienced.
As we enter the Season of Epiphany, we, too, are on a journey, searching for the presence of God in our world so that we might find him, worship him, present him with gifts, and then return to our daily lives to live out of the experienced reality of his presence. Along the way, we must watch for and seek direction on the journey, not discounting unexpected sources of guidance. We must examine our motives for the journey. Are we seeking him to worship him for who he is? What if what we find is not what we expected or hoped for? What if he asks us to give something we do not want to relinquish? What if reaching our destination threatens our comfort or control? As Jesus manifests God in unexpected and even mysterious ways in our lives, we must be willing to let go of our notions of what ought to be or what should be and surrender to the reality of God as he truly is. And then we must be willing to go from our encounter with this God who came to live in our midst back into our world to share our journey and manifest the effects it has wrought.