On Friday, January 6, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Although, most Christians will not celebrate it in any particular way, falling as it does most of the time on a day other than Sunday. I have often wished that we could celebrate the Epiphany the way we celebrate All Saints Day in November. All Saints is always on November 1, and yet in The Episcopal Church, at least, we can celebrate it on the first Sunday after November 1 so most people don’t miss out on it in years when November 1 doesn’t fall on a Sunday.
But no such luck with Epiphany. The first Sunday after January 6 is designated for celebrating the Baptism of Jesus, and so the Epiphany story does get missed by most people most of the time. Yet, it is well known. Epiphany is the day when we remember and celebrate the story of the three wise kings who, as told in Matthew’s Gospel, travel from the East to pay a visit to the baby Jesus, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Modern sensibilities tend to get caught up in the “facts” of the story. “Did it really happen?” The more important question is, “Why does Matthew’s Gospel tell this story?” What is it trying to tell us?
The story of the three kings is employing a rich set of symbols to say something about who Jesus is (as experienced by the early Christian community). The appearance of the star that guides the kings to Jesus’ birthplace connects Jesus to the cosmos and, in an age that saw the world as flat and heaven (and thus God) as “up there”, it links Jesus to the heavens, to God, indicating that something of great significance has happened and that God is somehow involved. The fact that the wise kings are described as coming from outside the Jewish community is meant to communicate that this significant event is important not just for the Jewish people, but for all people. Indeed, given the history of the Jesus movement, one might argue that the three non-Jewish wise guys signify that the Jesus event is not for the Jewish people but for those outside the Jewish community – God truly doing a new thing. And the gifts which the kings bring have significance, as well. Gold, of course, is something of great value and has often been associated with kingship. Thus, the gold emphasizes Jesus’ earthly value and significance. Frankincense was often used as an offering to the divine, and so it emphasizes Jesus’ divine significance. Finally, myrrh was used extensively in the ancient world in burial rites, and thus it points us toward Jesus’ eventual death (and resurrection). Myrrh was also used in healing rituals, and so the gift perhaps indicates a connection between the death and resurrection of Christ and the healing of humanity.
All of the symbolic elements of the story converge in the name given to the day when we remember and celebrate the story: Epiphany. The word itself refers to a revelation of divinity. But it also refers to an insight, often a sudden insight, into the essence or nature of something. By telling the story of the three kings, Matthew seeks to impress upon us the significance of Jesus for God and for us. Those who are wise, the story tells us, will realize this significance and be drawn to Jesus.
As we move beyond the Feast of the Epiphany this Friday and into the season of Epiphany, which will take us up to Lent, Matthew’s story also poses for us a couple of questions to contemplate: What is the significance of Christ in my life? And, in the spirit of Epiphany, How does my life demonstrate that significance? For, as the teaching of Jesus makes abundantly clear, it is not enough to claim that Jesus is significant. We are called to manifest that significance in the living of our lives so that it shines like a star, giving light to a world too often darkened by wisdom that is no wisdom.