Twelve days after Christmas, January 6, is the day of Epiphany. “Epiphany” is a word that means manifestation or revelation. In the Christian church, Epiphany is a holy day that celebrates the journey of the wise men bringing gifts to the child Jesus, in whom they see God manifested. In many churches, the Sundays following Epiphany feature lectionary readings of Christ’s early ministry, stories in which God is revealed through Jesus’ works and teachings.
The story of the wise men is part of Christian lore. Every manger scene includes three kings kneeling before the baby Jesus in the manger. But the Bible actually tells us very little about these characters, who might have been astronomers or scholars or kings or priests. Only the Gospel of Matthew includes their story; Mark, Luke and John make no mention of them.
Despite the words in the famous carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” we do not know how many there were or from whence they came. Tradition has it that there were three wise men because three gifts are mentioned. Legend has given them the names of Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior, and all we know about their homeland is that they came “from the East.” And although they are often included in manger scenes, they would not have arrived until Jesus was, at most, a young boy.
But it really doesn’t matter to me that the legend and the Biblical narrative are somewhat muddled, as I don’t think the wise men existed in a literal way. I believe that much of the nativity story is a Christian “midrash.” A midrash is a Rabbinic technique of illuminating a biblical story by adding to the non-literal story to shed light on its meaning. For example, the wise men’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh have symbolic meaning. Gold was a gift for a king (representing Jesus’ royal birth), frankincense was a spice burned in the temple (signifying Jesus’ priestly role), and myrrh was used in embalming (foreshadowing Jesus’ death and resurrection). The star which the wise men followed was a traditional element in many ancient stories to symbolize a special birth. The story of the wise men, then, does not need to be understood literally. It is there to add depth to the story of who Jesus was understood to be — God among us, revealed and manifested — an epiphany to them and to us.
I love the story of the wise men. Of all the characters in the nativity story, they are to me the best examples of people seeking spiritual truth. The typical nativity scene presents such a cozy picture: the peaceful baby, gentle Mary, patient Joseph, lowing animals, adoring shepherds and singing angels. The wise men add an element of science and reason to the tableaux. They didn’t just stumble on this baby, or hear choirs of angels announcing his birth. They worked hard to get there. They offered their best gifts. They left their comfortable homes, journeyed over difficult terrain, were scoffed at and threatened, doubted their choice to pursue this crazy idea, and yet they found what they were looking for. Sort of, that is. They expected a king, and found a simple carpenter’s child. But in that child, they found God.
The wise men are a great example to us because we are all on spiritual journeys in our own lives. Every year at this time, I reread “The Journey of the Magi,” a moving poem by T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s magi had a hard time of it. They regretted leaving their comfortable homes to pursue their odd journey. And when they arrived, what they found was not what they expected, and yet it was “(you may say) satisfactory.” Looking back, the narrator in the poem says that he would do it all again. He is changed forever. Our own spiritual journeys are like that too — often difficult, usually not what we expect, but always life-changing.
And very simply, that is what this story says to me. God was, and is, present in our world, often in unexpected places and people. I see God manifested in the miracle of a child, the love of family and friends, the generosity of strangers, the community of people and the beauty of creation. God is still known to us through our own personal epiphanies on our individual spiritual journeys.
Jill Fandrich is a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, where she edits the church newsletter and webpage at www.westminsterauburn.org