January 6 is Epiphany on the church calendar, the day set aside to celebrate the arrival of the magi to see Jesus. The magi, or “wise men” or, traditionally, the Three Kings, followed the star to Bethlehem, seeking the prophesied King. The story appears in Matthew 2:1-12.
Well, spoiler alert: there’s a load of issues about the story as we traditionally tell it. The bible doesn’t give them names or say exactly where they’re from, tradition does, and the names vary in western and eastern cultures. It also doesn’t say that they were kings. Nor does the bible specify how many there were. We assumed that – and made them kings – based on the three very valuable gifts the bible says that they brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh. And, on top of all that – the big one – they couldn’t have arrived at the manger on Christmas night, not if they followed a star from the east. In fact, the bible story says that they found Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a house. The next part of the bible story, again only in Matthew, tells about King Herod ordering all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two be killed and that’s not something that contributes to a happy Christmas story. So we tell it a little differently and we have them arrive at the manger with everyone else.
There are really interesting things to explore in this story as Matthew tells it. There’s many a sermon in wondering where they came from or why only the magi could see the star while Herod appears to not know where it is. Or wondering about the journey the magi made and where they went when they went “home by another way.” And what about Herod and his fear – shouldn’t he have known about the prophecy? Or the fulfilment of the various prophesies Matthew refers to or what about the escape to Egypt. Yes, they’re refugees. There’s a lot there.
But what really is “true” about the story, what’s the real heart of it? Isn’t it their “Epiphany?” The word “epiphany” comes from a Greek word meaning manifestation, a sudden revealing or an immediate enlightening realization. This child, born in a little backwater town, in a stable, of poor parents, this little child is the King they were seeking. They may have set out with a different expectation – others certainly expected a different kind of Messiah – but this child was revealed to them as the fulfilment of the prophesy, the one who was promised.
Our expectations can often get in the way of seeing what’s really true. But it’s also possible that the ways in which tell a story, where and when and how we place that central truth, may bring us to a more fulfilling understanding of it. In other words, might we not find this truth in telling a story of comfort and joy as readily as one of challenge and hardship, or even doubt and fear?
There is time for stories that illuminate and enlighten. Epiphany is, in fact, more than one day in most churches. It’s a whole season of stories revealing Jesus to us. The first Sunday after Epiphany we hear the story of the baptism of Jesus, in which Jesus is revealed by the Spirit in the shape of a dove and “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased'” (Luke 3:22). Then the story of the wedding in Cana and Jesus’ first miracle, the reading in the synagogue and the fulfilment of scripture, and the mountain top transfiguration.
All of these stories reveal something about Jesus to us: that, in Jesus, God is come among us. And in telling those stories, we look to reveal something about us, too.