Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection Janurary 7, 2018
"Epiphany Reflections" by: Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
A Blessed 2018 to us all! This coming Sunday we celebrate what is known as the Epiphany. Epiphany comes from a Greek word for “appearance or manifestation”. Specifically it refers to the appearance of God in human form. In our church, we celebrate the appearance of God in Christ Jesus especially as made manifest to the non-Jewish world in the guise of the magi. The Feast of the Epiphany is among my favorite feasts. I’ll explain why at our Epiphany worship!
The word “magi” is the plural of the word, “magus”, which means one of the priests of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. So the magi may have come from Persia (present day Iran). In our Christian tradition, these magi are often spoken of as “kings.” This association probably arose because of Psalm 72: “May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him…” as well as references from Isaiah.
In the 13th Century, the famous explorer, Marco Polo, wrote in his travel journal that he was shown the burial chamber of the three magi in a town south of Teheran. So, until we know better, we imagine our three magi as being Zoroastrian priests who travel to Bethlehem from Persia. We do not know when they arrive but it’s probable they began their journey sometime after Jesus’ birth. The star spoken about in Matthew’s account would have appeared at the birth of Christ and not before.
The prophecy of the Christmas star is the fulfillment of a prophecy from Chapter 22 of the Book of Numbers. The king of Moab summons a soothsayer or magus named Balaam. Balaam is summoned in order to curse the Israelites because they’ve been so successful in their military campaigns after leaving Egypt. Balaam, however, cannot curse the Israelites. Instead of cursing them, he blesses them. In one of these blessings, (Numbers 24:17), Balaam prophesies: “a star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” Balaam is also famous because of his talking donkey.
The story of the magi comes to us only in Matthew’s Gospel. The number of magi is not specified but has been set at three because of the three gifts given to the divine baby: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We also know that these magi have been given names. Since the 8th Century the three magi have been known as Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. When they see the star in their home country, they begin their travels. These travels would have taken some time, perhaps up to a year.
One thing is certain about the magi’s travels: they traveled mainly at night. How else could they have used the star to guide them on their way? But we might wonder why these magi left their homes and wandered for so long to come to the Babe of Bethlehem.
The message of the magi seems fairly clear: when it comes to searching for Jesus – we must be willing to abandon everything known and everything comfortable. To seek Jesus means he becomes the focal point – the only guiding star – in a vast galaxy of competing stars. The magi teach us that in order to find Jesus, we must be willing to travel by starlight.
As Jack Shea notes in Starlight: “God may live in unapproachable light, but the incarnate Son of God, the Word Made Flesh, and his incarnate followers struggle in starlight, the mix of light and darkness.” What Shea is symbolically saying is that we are often bumping into things and one another because we travel throughout our lives in what might best be described as starlight. We do not get to travel in the bright assurance of daylight. This is part of our broken human condition.
Why were the magi on their journey? Why did they spend so much time traveling by starlight? They endured all the travails of their travel in order to come and adore the Christ Child. There was a need in them and there is a need in us to bow down in worship – to adore the God who gave us life - “to prostrate before promise.” Each of us, young and old, rich and poor, male and female, has been created with a need to go in search of God – to seek ultimate meaning.
As Christians, we believe our ultimate meaning is found in the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. But we must still undertake the faith-journey. Not only must we be willing to travel by starlight, we must be willing to continue our journey even when we are tired – even when we are weary of wandering.
And as we travel - as we endure the rigors of the “road” - we must relearn how to listen to one another and how to speak to one another. This is not an easy task. We must stop declaring war on one another. As Rev. Dr. Alan Jones decries in Common Prayer on Common Ground: “We are at each other’s throats when we should be on our knees before the Christian mystery.”
As we celebrate the Epiphany of Our Lord – as we more fully enter this New Year 2018 – we remember that we’re called to a journey as dangerous and as difficult as the journey of the magi. So let’s begin this New Year 2018 with hope. Let’s begin this New Year 2018 with joy. Let’s begin this New Year 2018 with love. And, as Christian magi, as Christian pilgrims, let’s begin this New Year 2018 with dreams of who we are and who we can be in Christ Jesus.