1/6/13, An A-Ha Moment

Isiiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:2-2, 5-6, Matthew 2:1-2

Although many people have taken down their Christmas decorations and the markets have already turned their attention to the next consumer holiday, in the Catholic world of faith we are still celebrating the season of Christmas. 

Christians mark January 6 as the Feast of the Epiphany, the visit of the Magi to the birthplace of the Baby Jesus.  Why do we call this “Epiphany?”  The word epiphany refers to a flash of insight, a sudden understanding of the meaning of something.  It’s an a-hah moment in time, an “I get it!” moment.   The a-hah moment that is reflected in this story as Matthew writes it is the revelation of the mystery that in this child Jesus, relationship with God is made freely available to all nations, not just to the Jews.

Today’s Gospel reading gives the account of astrologers from the East who are seeking out a royal child whose birth they have deduced from ancient prophetic writings, probably from Isaiah.  But many of us derive our beliefs about the Christmas story not so much from scripture as from childhood impressions. We got these images of three kings on camels, bearing gifts and showing up at the stable from Christmas cards, the pageants we had to participate in, the Christmas carols, and multiple traditions of decorating and gift-giving.  When it comes to the three Wiseman, for me this is especially true.  I am embarrassed to admit that whenever I hear the carol “We Three Kings”, the first thing I think of is the childhood parody of that song.  “We Three Kings of Orient are… tried to smoke a rubber cigar…”  What a bizarre image!  But it illustrates the fact that our childhood impressions remain with us for a lifetime.  Sometimes those childhood impressions impede our adult understanding of truth. 

The story of the Magi visiting the Holy Family is only told in Matthew’s gospel.  Even if the Magi’s visit is completely legend, Matthew uses this story to create an important literary twist for his audience of 1st century Jewish followers of Christ. In the first chapter Matthew lists Jesus' full genealogy, a heritage of royalty back to King David.  This leaves no doubt about his beliefs about who Jesus was for the Hebrew nation.  Incorporating the foreign Magi into the second chapter, Matthew present Jesus as the universal gift of salvation to all nations.

The Magi were  Zoroastrian priests and astronomers from lands east of Israel.  These priests sought wisdom about God in their study of prophetic writings and the stars.  For the Magi to recognize Jesus would add to the Hebrew belief of Jesus as the Messiah. It was widely believed by the Jews that Zoroastrians prophesied three saviors to be born. Matthew’s inclusion of three gifts they bore may represent the gifts of "Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds" - the ancient Zoroastrian motto.  

No early church leader taught that the Magi were “kings”. It was important to them that Jesus was honored as “savior” by the traveling Zoroastrian priests. However, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire it became important to fulfill the Bible verse which says that all the kings of the earth would bow before Jesus. That’s how the tradition of the kings of orient arose.  And that’s why we heard the Isaiah passage today: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Isa. 60:3, NRSV

So there you have a little academic background on why the author of Matthew’s gospel included this story.  It had to do with the culture of the times, the way the 1st century world understood itself and how it conveyed the revelation of new truths.  Whether or not this story  literally happened,  there is an amazing amount of metaphorical truth to be discovered in it. 

This story offers to its readers the awareness that epiphany moments-sudden flashes of insight about spiritual truth- are available to us all along our journey of life.  By using characters who took a long journey through foreign lands to pursue the chance that they would discover the meaning of the star they followed, this story challenges all seekers of light and truth to follow their own path of hope towards the revelation of that which gives them freedom, or salvation.  It challenges us today to keep our eyes and our hearts open to a-ha moments as we make our way through a world in which we often feel like strangers.  Where is the God we seek and what is the meaning of this life?

 Those truths unfold only as we continue on the path of searching.  We find that often we have to leave behind the baggage of our childhood impressions in order to have space to receive the epiphanies available to us.  We have to give up our ideas that the biblical stories and our church traditions are literally true and unchanging  in order to discover deeper metaphorical truths.

In the birth stories of Jesus, the gospel writers introduce the child who will become the adult Jesus.  He would grow into the man who opened their eyes to see things never before seen.  His life, the gospel writers said, broke down the barriers of separation.  It called people to believe that a human being living after God’s heart could transform the world. When such a life was born, they said, the heavens must have been lit up with this kind of light.  Angels must have sung in glorious melodies that that people from near and far, from lowly walks of life as well as from scholarly and wealthy places would come to acknowledge the beginning of this unique life. That is what these Christmas stories mean and that is why we still treasure them. Their profound truth still brings us to epiphany moments today, if we let it be so.  May the Spirit of Truth open you to many a-ha, “I get it!” moments as together we journey through 2013. 

By Sandi DeMaster