Studying what we might call the liturgical history of the church, that is, how we as a community have worshiped for the better part of two thousand years, I remember my surprised reaction when I learned about the preeminence of Epiphany in the ancient Church’s calendar. It was this day, and not Christmas, that was second only to Holy Week and the Feast of the Resurrection.
And that gets one to thinking about what is it about this day versus the actual day of Christ’s birth that had ancient Christians celebrating a day I grew up to associate with taking the dried-out Christmas tree to the curb for pickup!
Well, what we have in Epiphany versus Christmas is something that perhaps, we need to recover as a Catholic community, as Christians and as citizens of the West, the civilization built on the foundation of Christendom. What is essential to us is not that Christ was born, but that he is encountered; not that he came in the flesh a long time ago and lived among us in historical terms; but that we come to him now through our actively seeking him.
Part of what made Epiphany significant to our spiritual ancestors was that through a good part of the period we know as ‘late antiquity’ they were quite conscious of the Jewish identity of Jesus and the status of the majority of them as “gentiles.” That is, they weren’t Jewish, members of the nation of Israel of which Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds keeping watch, the keeper of the booked-up inn, the tax officials, Herod and so on were all a part of. The story through its initial chapters is still, to their sensibilities, concerned with something going on in secret, hidden from the world; and hidden for good reason.
That they were let in on the secret, that this gift of revelation of God’s love was opened to them, and is opened to us today, is the real gift of the Christmas season. A lot of the language of Christ as gift to humanity migrated from Epiphany to Christmas over the course of centuries, especially within a thoroughly Christianized Europe, where the sense of being outside the community of the faithful and then admitted into God’s people because of Christ’s coming, diminished.
The coming of the magi, the three “kings” is about Christ’s debut to the world, a first revelation that is expressed in the world – consider who actually knows of his coming at this point in the story: Mary and Joseph, of course, and a few shepherds. Depending upon how we understand the chronology of events, we might include Simeon and Anna the prophet who are encountered at the Temple where Jesus is named and dedicated eight days after his birth – remember Bethlehem is roughly a two-hour walk from Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph would likely go no further with Jesus until he was a couple of months old, then make the trip back to Nazareth that would take, two to three days, perhaps longer if they kept a slower walking pace.
So, we’re talking about an in-group of Judeans and Galileans, of maybe a couple of dozen people: the shepherds, those who heard Anna preaching in the Temple in reaction to what for most people visiting the holy place would have taken as an ordinary couple coming for a routine ritual; they wouldn’t really have taken notice.
So, the wise men are something special: they represent the world, but even something more profound than that.
They are from “the east” and that has its own significance as the region we presume to be their home is what is often referred to as “the cradle of civilization.” Mesopotamia gave the world its first cities, its first society organized beyond the scale of clan and tribe. It is the birthplace of engineering, science, architecture, agriculture, or at least those disciplines in a way we would recognize them: organized and systematic disciplines, and not merely a random occurrence of human cleverness. We can also note with some melancholy that this is also the place where a true military was established; that is, organized standing, professional armies versus the seasonal soldiering of farmers turned militia, marching with their king against neighbor states in the time between planting and harvest.
This is all to say, it is the world that humanity had made, that is represented in these wise men.
Despite all the human achievement they could see around them in their fine gleaming cities such Babylon, Nimrud, Nineveh, Susa and Ur, they still recognized that there was something missing in all that had been accomplished. Despite coming from a land filled with gods such as Marduk, Ashur, Ishtar, Ahura Mazda, they desired an encounter beyond that of offering incense to mute stone statues, handing over gold to the temple priests of these national deities.
Restless, they pursued a sign in the heavens that, indeed, there is something more, something wonderful, authentically divine, and truly a heavenly visitation with humanity.
So, that is the message of Epiphany to the world. As we all move about in this wonderful world, through our own great cities, in the midst of all this technology, the achievement of our own times’ engineering, science and technology, and are yet restless, there is a possibility of encounter with something greater. Something greater, that unlike our human achievements, this greatness is eternal, everlasting, not to be replaced by a newer version, or to be abandoned on a rubbish heap, or left to crumble and decay.
The birth of Christ is truly splendid and a fact; but that fact alone cannot save, cannot redeem. Like passing this beautiful church every day, but never coming in, that is sadly how Christmas is for so many who see the Christ child, but do not make the pilgrimage to him; who are aware of the birth, but do not allow him to grow up within their minds and hearts, and so be transformed spiritually in him.
But we here are the people who do come; and we are as much from that world outside the doors of the church as were the magi – and while we bring gifts in the form of ourselves to lay before the king, we also are commissioned to take him with us to the world that needs to encounter him, needs to know him; and not simply as a child, or a man understood in childish terms, but as the Saviour, truly Christ the Lord.