Follow the Star

Merry Christmas, to all of you who still celebrate the twelve days of Christmas. And, Happy Epiphany! Today is the traditional celebration of the arrival of the Magi to visit Jesus. This is the manifestation (epiphany) of the nature of God in Christ that is recognized by the gentiles, as played by the wise ones from the East.

The story of the wise men could easily be the Biblical story that has received the most creative enhancement in Christian legend. Matthew is the only gospel that mentions the wise men and though he tells it quickly, quite a lot happens. We read that “wise men came from the east” following a star. King Herod, after conferring with the chief priests, tells them the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. He asks the travelers to send word back to him when they find the child. These star-followers find Jesus, leave their gifts, and then sneak home without telling Herod. Joseph is warned in a dream so he takes Mary and Jesus and slips out of town and heads to Egypt. King Herod, worried about a possible challenge to his crown, orders the execution of all boys two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem. It is quite a story.

Christian writers, though, have not been content to leave this story alone. In legends the wise men become Kings, there are made to be three of them (the Bible doesn’t mention how many visitors), and they are even given names and back stories. All elaborations on the original Biblical sketch.

Not only are none of these legends are true, but the historicity of the original story itself is questionable. Given that none of this appears anywhere else in the Bible, nor are any of these significant events mentioned in any non-Biblical histories of the time, and the supernatural nature of such a star, scholars generally question whether these things actually happened. As with much Bible story, we can never know for sure.

So why still recognize Epiphany? It is important to me because as much drama there is in the story, there is even greater symbolic depth. We testify that Jesus does manifest the spirit of God in such a unique manner that our lives are changed by him. But, more than that, he will also become such a threat to the powers that be that he will eventually be executed. The star that illuminates Jesus also casts a dark shadow of evil and pain in his life. The Magi’s appearance foreshadows the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry in the face of the Roman oppressors—a life that brings God’s spirit in spite of the world’s malevolence.

So Happy Epiphany! Enjoy the visit of the Kings with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. Follow them to the light of lights, but know that the light is not just to make us happy. It will also illuminate a lot of inequalities, despair and downright evil. But by following God’s way we may find meaning for us, and the strength to bring the same gifts to others.


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