By Rev. Michaele LaVigne
1 (capitalized): January 6; observed as a church festival in commemoration of the coming of the Magi
2: an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being
3a (1): a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something
(2): an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking
(3): an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure
b: a revealing scene or moment
Epiphany is a big deal. It’s not something that happens to you every day. An epiphany is a monumental, life-changing, reality-altering experience. It’s like when the light bulb goes on, or the puzzle piece finally falls into place, or when suddenly everything you know shifts slightly and comes into focus.
Epiphany is what happened to a group of men from Persia, near modern Iran/ Iraq. We don’t know how many there were, but we know they weren’t kings (“We Three Kings” isn’t a scriptural reference). Matthew refers to them as Magi, a title used for those who practiced magic and astrology. Based on other historical information, some have thought them to be official priests in the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.
Here’s what we know about these guys, in a nutshell:
They were not Jews.
Their home was in “the East,” most likely Persia.
They were astronomers and astrologists, studying the stars and planets to predict events on earth.
So one day, or more realistically one night, these men saw something that made them sit up and take notice. It was something that appeared in their language, in the world they knew: the stars. They witnessed a new star being born and somehow, through study or intuition, they came to understand that the star was proclaiming the birth of a new king. But it wasn’t their new king. It was a new king for a peculiar people group about 1,000 miles to the west, the same people group that had in fact been exiled in Persia hundreds of years before.
I would have loved to been in the room during their discussions. Did it take convincing for them to journey for days and months nearly 1,000 miles on foot and donkey to pay tribute to a king that wasn’t even theirs? Were they concerned that they would not be welcomed? And why did the arrival of another people’s king even matter to them at all? The exact answers to these questions we may never know, but I think the reason for all this strange behavior is summarized in this one word: epiphany.
A life-changing, reality-altering discovery can make you do crazy things.
So they traveled a long time. They packed up gifts of precious metal and expensive oils, fitting tributes for a king. They used their astronomical charts to guide them and followed that new star until it brought them to Judea (modern Israel). They assumed a king would be in the royal city, but instead of finding him in Jerusalem they found him in a humble house in Bethlehem. There, in a tiny house in a tiny backwater village, these well-traveled, wealthy, PhD-equivalent men bowed in worship before a toddler, and gave terribly expensive gifts to his illiterate teenage mother and his blue-collar father.
This is life-changing, reality-altering stuff. But it wasn’t just for the Magi.
The Jews were called “the people of God.” They had an exclusive relationship with God, and for most of scripture, it is apparent that they assumed God had an exclusive relationship with them. Most religious Jews looked upon magicians and those who practiced other religions with disdain, considering them ignorant and foolish idolaters.
But they were wrong.
If we’re paying attention, Matthew 2.1-12 is a story that shocks us, not because God loves magicians and astrologers – we know God loves everybody. But it shocks us because he chooses to reveal himself to them in their own language of stars and signs. He seeks them out and pulls back the curtain on himself before they change their vocabulary, before they alter their worship, and without changing their address, race, or cultural practices. This is an epiphany!
The story of the Magi reminds us that God is in the business of telling people about himself, even – and maybe even especially – the people we assume don’t know the first thing about him. I don’t know anyone who practices magic (I don’t think Harry Potter counts). But I do know some people who believe in things I don’t understand and even disagree with. And I must confess, at times I have assumed that they are just too far away to understand God or ever hear from him. But if there is anything that Epiphany teaches me, it’s this: I am wrong.
No one is too far. No one is too wrong. No one is too confused. No one is too steeped in their traditions for God to choose them. And he chooses to show himself to everyone.
Today is the day of Epiphany, a day we pray for God to reveal himself to us, to break through our mundane world and bring us mind-blowing epiphanies. But maybe even more importantly, we pray for the Magi around us, whoever they are, to receive epiphanies of their own.
May we join God in his very real, very good, and mind-blowing work of revealing himself to all people.