This Sunday, January 6, is the feast of the Epiphany. I’m sure most of you know the story that lies at the heart of this celebration: three kings (or wise men) “from the East” find their way to the birthplace of Jesus by following a star. They bear gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And when they stop off to see King Herod about a newly born “king of the Jews”, they make him very nervous – violently so.
The story appears only in Matthew’s Gospel, and is usually interpreted to signify the importance which Jesus has not simply to the Jewish community, but to all humanity, since the wise kings are not Jewish, but represent Gentiles: that is, everybody else. The word “epiphany” means “an appearance or manifestation”, especially of someone or something divine. It also means “a sudden, intuitive perception or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something.” Within the context of the story, the kings, as they contemplated the stars, had an intuition that something important had happened and, when they arrived to see the baby Jesus, they beheld a manifestation of the divine in the child.
Some will want to insist that Matthew’s story of the three kings is historically true. Others will want to insist that it cannot be. But it’s historical veracity is not really the point. We must always keep in mind when we read the Gospels that their primary purpose is proclamation, and the writers of the Gospels use a variety of stories to do that. The truth of the Gospels lie not in their historical accuracy from our point of view but, rather, in the content of their proclamation of which stories, like that of the three kings, are a vehicle.
It seems clear to me that in telling this story, Matthew is interested in highlighting the cosmic significance of Jesus (hence the relationship between his birth and the appearance of a particular star). This cosmic significance leads naturally into an emphasis by Matthew on the universal significance of Jesus – that is, that Jesus is important not just for Jews but also for Gentiles. Yet, despite the deep significance of Jesus cosmically and among the human family, there are those (represented by Herod) who are threatened by Jesus and all that he represents and respond with violence and evil.
This year, as I contemplate the story of Epiphany, not only do I appreciate the truths that Matthew seeks to proclaim, but I am particularly struck this year with the journey of the three kings themselves. Their journey is, it seems to me, a pilgrimage, a seeking after meaning, connection, and relationship with the divine. They observe the signs available to them (represented by the stars) and what they see moves them to set out along a new path in their lives that will lead to someplace and someone deeper. Their epiphany, their insight, is that they need something more in their lives.
Many of us are on this same journey. As we observe the signs around us – injustice, violence, human and environmental degradation, broken political and economic systems – we find ourselves drawn into a journey toward deeper meaning, deeper connectedness. We have an insight that our lives should be about more than what we see around us – that there is a more profound truth and reality that lies beneath all the chaos and dysfunction. May we have the courage, the heart, to accept the invitation that the signs offer to us. May we set out each on our own pilgrimage to the particular Bethlehem that calls to us, and may we discover a more sacred way of living and loving.