Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. While it is a major feast day of the Church, unless it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, most Christians, most Episcopalians, don’t really observe it. Epiphany marks the end of Christmastide in our calendar, so while the church is still decorated for Christmas today, the decorations will be removed after today’s service. There’s a bit of confusion or controversy there, because many people take down their Christmas trees and other decorations on 12th night, which occurred yesterday, the 12th day of Christmas. We keep our decorations up largely because we want to retain the crèche and enjoy seeing the magi and their entourage worshiping the christchild at the crèche. If you weren’t here for Christmas, they spent the entirety of Christmas season on the table in the rear of the nave.
Our focus may be on the star and the magi or wise men on Epiphany, but it’s a feast that has other connections in the larger Christian tradition. It is also associated with Jesus’ Baptism and with Jesus’ first miracle recorded in John, the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.
Both of those stories point to the deeper meaning of the feast of the Epiphany. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word that means “appearance,” or “manifestation”—especially of the divine or of God. It was used in the Hellenistic world of Jesus’ day to describe those appearances of the divine to humans, moments when the gods seemed especially near. It was also used often as a title for rulers and became associated with the imperial cult, as emperors came to be understood as manifestations of the divine.
We see elements of that notion in our familiar gospel story, the story of the coming of the wise men following the star. It’s a lovely story, but one that’s been very much domesticated by the Christian tradition, so that we miss the deeper meaning and power of Matthew’s larger purposes in telling it. First of all, the wise men, or kings. Well, they’re not kings, are they? Associating them with kings derives from other scriptural references such as those from today’s reading from Isaiah and from the Psalm. When we call them “magi” we’re getting closer to what Matthew had in mind, astrologers from the East, very likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran—who were astrologers, using the movements of the constellations and planets to predict the future.
Their very exoticism, their “otherness” is part of Matthew’s point. Coming from the east, they had no knowledge of Jewish scriptures or traditions; they were Gentiles. In part, Matthew wants us to see them as part of the larger mission of sharing the good news—to all the world, as he has Jesus command his disciples in the last verses of his gospel. But he also wants us to understand that even apart from scripture, Gentiles can come to some understanding of God and of God’s saving work—all it took for the magi to begin their quest was to see a new star rising in the East.
The magi’s intuition of God’s new actions in the world provide a sharp contrast with that of Herod who had know clue about the birth of the “king of the Jews” and was terrified when he heard of it. He had to bring in scripture experts to answer the question the magi posed to him.
Let me tell you a little bit about Herod the Great. Herod’s father and grandfather had been supporters of Rome and rulers of provinces in Palestine. Herod’s father appointed him Governor of Judea. Eventually, in the midst of conflict over succession to Julius Caesar, Herod fled to Rome and succeeded in getting declared King of Judea by the Senate; returning to Palestine, he also gained control over Galilee, and eventually, by marrying the daughter of his chief rival, became de facto King of the Jews. He was a ruthless ruler, known for his excessive taxation. He built Roman style cities such as Caesarea Maritima and began the rebuilding and expansion of the Jerusalem Temple. He also had considerable conflict within his domestic life—he had five wives, one of whom he had executed, and killed two of his sons when he feared conspiring against him, and just days before his death, had a third son executed.
All of this is backdrop to Matthew’s story and while we didn’t hear the next episode of this story—the flight to Egypt and the execution of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two, and while there’s no independent evidence to support this episode, it’s entirely in keeping with what we know about Herod historically. If he killed his own sons because of their efforts to wrest power from him, it’s likely he would have had no qualms with large-scale executions of whole demographic groups.
Matthew is drawing a sharp distinction between Herod, King of the Jews, and Jesus, King of the Jews. He is also drawing a sharp distinction between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. When Herod heard the news of these visitors from the East in search the child born “king of the Jews” Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. The magi say their intent is to go to the newborn child and pay him homage—we should have in mind a formal act of obeisance a subject might offer to a king or ruler.
So there are two kings in this story, not three. The two kings are rivals—both King of the Jews, one is Jesus, one is Herod. Herod represents the power and ruthlessness of the world, willing to take any action to gain and consolidate power, and once in power to use everything and everyone at his disposal to display and project his wealth and power.
On the other hand, the king of the Jews, born in Bethlehem, born to ordinary, poor, people who are at the mercy of the other king—whose experience of his kingship is terror and fear, who flee their home for another country in search of safety. That king of the Jews will grow up to proclaim the coming of God’s reign, a reign not of power and fear, maintained by bloodshed, but a reign of peace and justice. Jesus’ life will end as he is proclaimed “King of the Jews” by the charges leveled against him by the Roman Empire, a revolutionary, a rabble-rouser.
Like the magi, we stand between these two kings, these two kingdoms. Our journey in search of Jesus has brought us to this place, to this crossroads. We may want to make homage to the king of the Jews, but do we know what that truly means? Are we able to make that journey? Herod’s kingdom may beckon to us with its power and wealth, even with its ruthlessness, but the kingdom of the one who was born in Bethlehem, whose parents fled with him toEgypt, who preached mercy and peace, and whose life ended on the cross in Herod’s city of Jerusalem, beckons to us as well. To whom will we pay homage, before whom will we offer our gifts?