I love the celebration of Epiphany! I love the celebration of recognizing that God is among us in the world. For this is what January 6th on the Christian calendar means. This is what I have always been taught. This year, however, as I have journeyed through the Advent/Christmas season I find myself questioning the meaning of this festival.
If what we celebrate on Epiphany is the recognition of God with us, then what does that say about the rest of the Christmas story? Let’s review.
- There is Mary, who is informed by Gabriel that the child she will conceive will be the Son of God.
- There is Elizabeth, who recognizes who Jesus is (still in utero) via the reaction of the child in her womb.
- There is Joseph, who is visited in dreams (also while Jesus is in utero) and told who Jesus is.
- There is Zechariah, who is told by Gabriel in the holy of holies who Jesus is to be, and who experiences the holy power by being forced into silence for nine months.
- There are the shepherds who are visited by the angels in the field and told that Jesus the Christ child has been born—this is why they take leave of their fields and rush to the manager on the First Noel.
- There are the three Magi, informed of Jesus’ birth not by angels but instead by a star.
- And there is even King Herod, who searches out the newborn “king” so desperately that he massacres a whole generation.
Are the spiritual experiences and revelation of who Jesus is prior to the arrival of the Magi somehow invalid? Do I need to get liberation on this story?
There seems to actually be a lot of recognition in the gospels about who the baby Jesus is, very apart from the reference to the Magi—which is only in the Gospel of Matthew after all. Both before and at his birth there seems to be something widely known to be special about this Jesus. Really, are all babies visited by scholars, politicians, and night watch security guards as they are attracted to this new life?
On Epiphany we traditionally celebrate the recognition of Jesus’ being something divine come into the world. Perhaps this had to do with the divinity of the star in the story of the Magi. As the celebration of Feast of the Magi—Epiphany—approaches it occurs to me that the Magi are but the last in a series of persons to learn who baby Jesus is. Many people were already aware of the birth of Jesus and somehow aware of the significance of his birth. These were not just any people—they were the parents, family, workers, and outcasts of Jesus’ world come to pay homage to the “newborn King.” In some sense the arrival of the Magi is just the signal that all those outside Bethlehem and Israel are to be affected by this child.
In the lead up to this Epiphany, I am aware that the recognition that something special had arrived to all the Earth occurred long before the arrival of the Magi. And, after all, why do we need to wait for them? But this also reminds me that it is up to each one of us to recognize the holy come into the world; the Christ child in our midst, and to respond to the world out of that reality. It comes down to a question Jesus will later pose to his disciples, and bears recalling at this season: who do you say that I am? Who do you say this child is?