Posted by Michelle Anne Schingler
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
We are told that three came from the East inquiring after him.
What we know of them from the gospel is little. They are called “wise”, and emanate from some enigmatic place previously beyond monotheism’s reach. They come searching, having heard that a great ruler has been born, having learned this, apparently, from a study of the stars.
In their certainty, they horrified Herod. They represent revelation of God’s good news which even Herod must reluctantly call credible. He does not want to hear that God has come to Earth from three respectable men; their conviction becomes, to him, a threat.
We have a picture of him in our heads: a bloated and arrogant ruler, pompous and spoiled, pickled in the poison of baseless self-importance.
Herod becomes a wicked stepmother character, a caricature of villainy: he peers into the wise men’s vision, finds that he is not, after all, the most wondrous creature in the land…and, out of jealousy and fear, resolves to find a way to stop the child.
He cannot lose his position of power, he thinks. He hears the wise men’s words only shallowly—misses the promise which comes with the messiah, registers only that he won’t be the most revered.
The wise men proclaim that they wish to pay homage; Herod, fallaciously, asks that they find the child so that he can pay his, as well.
We know how such stories go. The heart of Herod never changes, in any incarnation of this tale; the sincere homage paid by the wise men, if they extend word of Jesus’s availability to Herod, could prove the young king’s doom.
The Epiphany, then, becomes a feast both about the awesome revelation of the Christ-child as the anointed one, and a tale of possible peril. We cannot hear the gospel reading without still worrying for Jesus—and without realizing that God’s graces are not always well received by those on Earth.
A selfish heart is blockaded to the gifts of a faith. They are available only to the humble, to those who are able to self-empty when they stand before God.
The wise men stand in interesting contrast to Herod: we have come to picture them as also opulently attired, as also possessing great wealth. The gifts which they bring to the young king of heaven are costly: precise metals, fine spices, rare oils. They are surrounded by things which a person like Herod would treasure above all else and would never want to relinquish.
The wise men, before Jesus, find use for none of these things. All which they have they lay before him.
They are embodiments of Christian virtue: of homage. Self-emptying. Of acknowledgement that what we have is a result of grace.
For their humility, they are rewarded by becoming momentary prophets: in dreams, Herod’s malicious intentions are revealed to them, and they find that they cannot go back.
The epiphany story ends as it began, dually with promise and reservation: with the example of those who find themselves at their best before, and because of, Christ; and with the background presence of one who only wants to undo him.
The beauty of the epiphany is that heaven became visible, and present, on Earth for the enjoyment of all. Its sole tragedy is the reminder that some will always avert their eyes from God’s beauty.
Epiphany affords us the opportunity to be our best in the world to which Jesus came.
It reminds us to withhold our homage before all contemporary Herods, who never get their valuations quite right.
It asks us to be humble. In its moments, we pray to see. We set our eyes toward the star—what we left behind only falsely scintillates; the light which can sustain comes from God, revealed in Christ. We prepare whatever we have, knowing we owe it to him.
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