Today is the first day after Christmas. That may sound a bit strange for some, but it’s important to remember that Christmas is a season of 12 days, not just one day. Immediately following Christmas is the Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrate today. When the Epiphany first became a specific date on the Christian 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.
Now, what does this have to do with the Epiphany? The term “epiphany” suggests something of a lightbulb moment. So what is being clarified or illuminated by Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Magi? Is it simply what the Magi discovered astrologically, that a certain infant in Bethlehem was actually the king of Israel? I don’t think that’s the answer because part of what we celebrate at Christmas is in fact the birth of Jesus as Messiah and king. We also set aside the last Sunday of the liturgical year for the Feast of the Reign of Christ, immediately prior to the beginning of Advent. If the Epiphany—today—isn’t a redundancy, then it must celebrate something beyond the fact of Jesus’ identity as Messiah and king. What would that be? I think what the Epiphany reveals to us is something of the nature of Jesus’ reign and, more to the point, something of the very being of God.
Here’s my thesis that I’d like to offer for your consideration. I think 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 I’m sure you’ll recognize: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” What does it mean to affirm that God is one? It can’t mean that God is just one among many. It must mean, rather, that God’s oneness permeates all things. It means that God is unbounded.
To say that God is unbounded means that borders and boundaries are transcended; it means that barriers are broken down. It means that if Jesus shows us the fullness of God, then following Jesus is life on a path of reconciliation. It means that the Christian life is a struggle to overcome those forces that seek to keep people and things forever separated and hierarchically ranked. I think this is the lesson of today’s Gospel.
The first line of separation that we see overcome 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. We find that 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 or even no religious affiliation. 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.
A second line of separation that is overcome in today’s Gospel is on a 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. 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 is the Way of Jesus itself, a way of envisioning life together beyond the binaries of religion and politics.
A third line that is erased in today’s Gospel is more subtle, but it’s the line between what some sociologists might call the sacred and the profane—or, in other words, the line between the holy and the ordinary. Today’s Gospel is a story about Eastern astrologers, a curious star, an insecure vassal king, an infant of lowly birth, gold, frankincense, myrrh, and dreams of warning. It’s challenging to identify what is holy and what is just ordinary. The whole story, it seems to me, is infused with divine grace—from the guiding star to the gifts presented to the infant Jesus to everything in between, including the Magi’s encounter with King Herod. That, I think, is the point of the Epiphany: that we can now see all reality as permeated by God, illumined by the light of Christ. The Epiphany is our lightbulb moment when we glimpse the sheer oneness of God that overcomes all the binaries of darkness.
So today is a wonderful day. We celebrate that the light of Christ extends to all, that it unsettles the powers, and that it shows God’s presence everywhere. It’s a light that beckons us all to follow. And that’s why this particular church exists: to allow the light to shine and be discovered through each of us, so that our neighborhood, our city, our world may be transformed by the radiant oneness of God.