Well, the season of Christmas is officially over. For a lot of people, Christmas was over before dusk on December 25. Now, if you understand Christmas as a 12-day season, as we all should, then this past Thursday marked the last day of Christmas. But don’t despair: the story of Jesus’ birth is still very much where our focus should be. For today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. When the Epiphany first became a specific date on the liturgical calendar, it marked a celebration of Jesus’ baptism—which is what it continues to be in the Eastern tradition of Christianity. But in the early development of Western Christianity, the focus of the Epiphany moved away from Jesus’ baptism back to the circumstances of his birth and the visit of the Magi.  

The Magi—which is where our words “magic” and “magician” are derived from—were likely Zoroastrian astrologers who hailed from Persia. We’re not told in Matthew’s Gospel how many of them journeyed to find the infant Jesus. The Christmas carol “We Three Kings” is more than a bit misleading. We don’t know that there were only three, and they weren’t exactly kings. In any case, we’re told that these Magi were determined to find Jesus. Why? Because their earnest practice of Zoroastrian astrology compelled them to solve the mystery of a certain star. That star indicated to them that a new king of the Jews had just been born. They wanted to find this newborn king and pay tribute.  

Typically, the Feast of the Epiphany is understood as a celebration of what the Magi discovered astrologically, that a certain infant in Bethlehem was actually the long-awaited righteous king who will establish peace and justice, not only throughout Israel but also the world. But when you think about it, isn’t that what we celebrate at Christmas? We belt out carols like “Joy to the world, the Lord is come / Let earth receive her king” and “Hark, the herald angels sing / Glory to the newborn king.” I think Epiphany challenges us to go deeper and think harder about what exactly is being revealed through Jesus to the world. Here’s what I’d like to suggest: what is revealed in the visit of the Magi is the nature of Jesus’ reign and, even more than that, the depth of the meaning of the name Immanuel—“God with us.”  

Let me unpack that. I think the Feast of the Epiphany helps us to understand one of the most important declarations of the Torah and one of the most central prayers of Jewish liturgy, even today. In fact, Anglicans say these words as part of the Daily Office of prayer, which some of you will recognize: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Affirming that God is one, doesn’t mean that God is just one among many. It means, rather, that God’s oneness permeates all things. It means that God is unbounded.  

To say that God is unbounded means that God’s essence is not defined by borders and boundaries; it means that barriers are broken down. It means that if Jesus shows us the fullness of God, then following Jesus is a life path of reconciliation. It means that to live as a Christian is to struggle to overcome those forces that seek to keep people and things forever separated and hierarchically ranked. In today’s Gospel, I think we can see at least two lines of separation overcome.  

The first is the one between people of different ethnicities and religious traditions. It’s not inconsequential that Zoroastrian astrologers—not Jewish priests—first announced the birth of Jesus the Messiah in Jerusalem. The significance of Jesus outreaches the religion of Torah; it extends far beyond the borders of Israel. It brings hope even to those places where Jews were held in exile (like Persia), places that some would want to forget and block out. But the light of Christ shines into every corner of the world, transforming those who encounter it—irrespective of their religious commitments and ethnic identities. In fact, the light of Christ can be mediated through the very practices of other faiths—such as Zoroastrian astrology! I think one thing we can learn from today’s Gospel is that, in our day, the light of Christ shines beyond the Church, and sometimes even in spite of it. We need to be open to learn from those whose lives have been touched by the light, particularly those of different faith traditions. Ours is an age of movement and immigration, which puts us in daily contact with those who speak different languages, who gather in temples and mosques and other spaces to reflect on different religious texts. We owe it to ourselves to appreciate more of what is beyond the world of Christianity and to cultivate friendships with those of other faiths.  

This is work that I’m personally invested in. Some of you know that I’ve been a student of Buddhism for a number of years. My mother-in-law was raised a Sikh in India. I’ve visited gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship), and I’ve been at many family get-togethers where I’ve sang Christmas carols with Sikhs and Muslims. A few years ago, the Interfaith Officer for the Diocese of Toronto was a priest named Gary van der Meer. Gary invited me to be part of a small group that was helping him promote interfaith ministry. When Gary left for the Diocese of Ottawa, he recommended to Bishop Andrew Asbil that this small group become a formal Bishop’s Committee and that I co-chair it alongside my friend Roshni Jayawardena, a priest in Mississauga. Bishop Andrew agreed, and Roshni and I now oversee a committee of clergy and lay people who participate in different interfaith dialogues and initiatives. On the evening of Monday, January 30, we will be holding an education event on Zoom—a panel featuring a Sikh chaplain, a Muslim chaplain, and a Buddhist psychotherapist in conversation about why it’s important for them to interact with people of other faiths, particularly with Christians. Organizing this event is but one humble attempt to bear witness to Christ’s Epiphany and God’s unboundedness.  

There’s a second line of separation that is overcome in today’s Gospel—on a more structural level—between religion and politics. King Herod in Jesus’ day was a client ruler of the region of Palestine, under the authority of the ancient Roman empire. As long as Herod looked good with Rome, he would hold sway. But Herod becomes very unnerved when he’s informed that the Messiah has been born. He knows that the Messiah would not be a mere “spiritual” leader. Messianic hope was all-encompassing: its reach was spiritual, material, political, communal, national. That is threatening to existing political power. From the era of the Reformation up to the present, an informal agreement has been struck between political power and religious communities: religion cares for the soul, while politics takes responsibility for everything else—the body and material existence. Politics is public; spirituality of private—that’s the general consensus passed down from generation to generation. I think what we learn from today’s Gospel is that this division of responsibility collapses. The light of Christ confronts political power and unsettles it. In fact, those of us who follow the light may find ourselves distrustful of the powers, just like the Magi, never returning to “Herod” but leaving via a different road. That other road represents the very path of Jesus, what Mennonite scholar Donald Kraybill has called “the upside down kingdom”—where the last are first and the first are last.  

What other ways might we understand boundaries and barriers overcome in the identity of Jesus? I’ve suggested two, based on today’s Gospel. If I might leave you with homework this week, think this through even more. Where is God moving in the world, even in your own life, overcoming barriers? And how might we be more actively part of it?