Epiphany of the Lord
8th January 2017
Matthew 2. 1-12
Rev Tony van Vuuren
Those of us of a certain age will remember the TV detective Columbo, the guy wearing the shabby raincoat, who was the master of the parting question. He would finish questioning someone and, as he was going out of the door and their guard was down, he would turn back with a ‘Oh, just one other thing.’ and ask that crucial question.
The Magi are like that final question. Christmas has been well and truly celebrated, the Boney M CD has been packed away together with the decorations, and the New Year is here, life is getting back to its normal routine; but then at the last minute Christmas turns back and throws us one last question, throws us the story of the Magi. The Magi are like that final question.
It seems to us like the Magi just appear at the end of the Christmas story, but for these foreign travellers the journey has been a long one. We don’t really know exactly where they come from, probably Persia, in which case they have travelled a great distance to get to Bethlehem.
We are misled by the fact that they appear, stay briefly, then depart, into thinking that this journey of theirs is a brief one, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is a long journey of extortionate cost, fraught with danger. Whatever possessed them to set out on such a mission, just to spend a few moments in Bethlehem?
This question brings us to the heart of the Epiphany Feast. If we can understand why the Magi travel all this way, we will be able to see what this feast is really about. We are rather misled by the romance of the three exotic gifts.
Our focus tends to be on the Gold and Frankincense and Myrrh, so that we come to think of the Magi as little more than gift bearers to transmit these beautiful gifts into the presence of Christ.
But this is not what they themselves say they are doing. Addressing Herod they ask ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews…we have come to worship him?’ and then when they arrive in Bethlehem they first throw themselves to the ground in homage before the Christ child; and only then do they reach into their bags and bring out the gifts. The wise men have not travelled all this way just to bring Jesus gifts; they have travelled all this way to worship him.
If we lose sight of that, we lose sight of the real spiritual significance of this feast. The giving of gifts is very potent; it is a prophetic act, because as we know, these are gifts with a spiritual significance, but this is nothing like as important as the Epiphany as a moment of worship.
The wise men have come all this way, have faced all that danger and discomfort, in order to worship the divine Son of God.
Still, though, we are left asking ‘why?’ Why would they travel so far in search of a God who is outside their culture, outside their territory, outside their experience? Pope Emeritus Benedict, in his book (Jesus of Nazareth Vol 3.
The Infancy Narratives p.95), has a beautiful expression that he uses to describe the Magi. He says that they would never have set out on such a journey unless they were people of “inner unrest”, that is “people of hope, people on the lookout for the true star of salvation” They travel all that way, they take all those risks including the great risk of entering Herod’s presence, because they are people of “inner unrest”.
They are not satisfied with their lives, they are driven to seek some deeper meaning, some sense of truths beyond their grasp, some sense that there is a world outside their control which they cannot master, but which they can begin to comprehend. Their minds, their souls, are restless and unable to settle, and this translates into the need to travel, to journey in search of something that will draw them upwards, up towards the truth. They are in a sense disturbed souls, but they feel very at home with that sense of incompleteness, of challenge, because for them it is the doorway to growth.
Contrast them, in this, with Herod. By the time the Magi arrive he is very definitely disturbed.
But whereas the Wise Men are at home with this inner unrest, and are able to feed off the spiritual energy that it brings, Herod does not cope with disturbance. It is at about this time that Herod has three of his sons murdered because he fears they may be a threat to his security, so he is clearly not a man who thrives on challenge and the unknown. The Magi arrive in serenity and ask their questions, throwing Jerusalem into turmoil.
Herod doesn’t just ask about where the Christ is to be born, his enquiries are frantic with evil intent. So he stands as a contrast to the Magi. They are men of inner unrest, certain that there is much they do not know, nor understand, and are anxious to open themselves to a new and deeper vision of reality; Herod already has his own vision of the World, with him firmly at the centre, and he will do anything he can to protect that set up, to make sure it is preserved at all costs.
Now, at last, we are able to understand what the final ‘Columbo question’ is that the Magi ask of us. It is perfectly timed, coming as it does just as we close off the Christmas season but also at the start of the New Year and Ordinary time.
As Christ is presented to us once again through the Gospels in the coming year, will we react like Herod, or like the Magi? Will we insist on bending and twisting and warping Christ so that he fits in with our way of doing things, with what I want to do, with what I want to be, will we try and force him to fit into our plans for the future?
Or will we allow him to challenge us and to change us; will we allow his words and his actions to disturb and unsettle us, even to make us change course, to turn life around, to do things differently? Will we allow ourselves to be led on a journey far from the place of comfort, so that we can take our place in God’s plan?
The Magi had to travel a long way on their journey, but most of us can make the journey within, because the real journey takes place in our minds, in our souls. It begins with a change of heart, with a decision to allow the Holy Spirit to help us find God’s presence.
If we can face each situation with confidence and with an open heart, fear and doubt will begin to melt away. We will find Jesus in unexpected, unlikely places; just as the Magi did.