JTPR

An Epiphany epiphany for us all

In Amateur Theology, Business Class, Oh! The humanities! on January 8, 2010 at 11:17 am

This week, Christian churches celebrate Epiphany, a tribute to the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. Or, at least, a lot of churches do. Many of them simply lump this observation into Christmas. As a result, many Christians have little or no idea what Epiphany’s all about.

In a way, that’s just as well, since there’s so much wrong with what most Christians think they know about the Magi. On the other hand, it’s unfortunate because there’s a lot we all – Christians, businesspeople, organizations – can learn from the experience of the Magi.

So … what’s wrong with what we know? We can sum up much of that in the standard, condensed version of the Magi story: Three kings from the East followed a star to arrive at the stable just in time for the birth of Jesus.

To start our examination of that story, let’s consider what we know is right in that version. First, Jesus was born. Second … well, uhm … there is no ‘second’.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “That’s got to be right. It’s all right there in the Nativity scene on top of the entertainment center! Three guys with crowns, kneeling alongside shepherds, cows and sheep, clearly brought to the scene by the Christmas tree light affixed to the back of the ‘stable’.”

Let’s talk about what’s wrong with that version.

  • “Three” – We have no idea how many Magi visited Christ; could have been three, could have been 300. This number seems to have come from the three gifts mentioned in the Bible. (“Wait! We know the Wise Guys’ names!” you say. “Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar!” No. Those names emerged from popular versions of the story many, many years after the Gospels were written.)
  • “Kings” – Nope. They were “magi,” aka teachers, astronomers, astrologers, “wise men” or even priests (but definitely not Hebrew priests, because much of the importance of Epiphany is that it represents the introduction of Christ to Gentiles).
  • “from the East” – OK, they did come from the East, but not the Far East, as is sometimes suggested (nor were they Benetton-like multi-cultural, as many politically correct Nativity scenes might suggest). They seem to have come from nearby Persia, or modern-day Iran.
  • “Followed a Star” – Again, this seems basically correct, although we don’t know that it was literally a star or some other God-rendered celestial light that led the Magi on their journey.
  • “to arrive at the stable” – There is nothing in the Gospels that puts the Magi at the stable. In fact, the Bible reports that they first traveled to Jerusalem to visit King Herod, and also describes their meeting with Jesus as occurring in a house.
  • “just in time for the birth of Jesus.” – Wrong again. The Magi seem to have made their way to Jesus months after he was born (scholars seem to typically say the visit occurred somewhere between six and 18 months after the birth) … which, if nothing else, explains why, after his visit with the Magi, Herod ordered the murder of all children under the age of 2.

Now, I offer all of that not because I want to play “I’m smarter than you.” (In fact, I bet plenty of people can find problems with my version.) That’s not the point at all. Frankly, I don’t believe those details are all that important to either the typical believer or non-believer.

My point is to force us all to see the story in a new light – to think about what these Magi did: They left comfortable homes to travel a long distance, chasing an intangible vision in the belief that it would lead to something life-changing. While that’s a gross simplification, it offers us a model for our own lives: Seek a world-changing vision, pursue it through all hardship, and hold firmly to your faith in its importance.

As much as I find that idea inspiring, I also find guidance in a post-mortem to this story, one that we don’t find in the Bible, but one that seems perfectly plausible and wonderfully informative.

T.S. Eliot describes it in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.” After a brief overview of the Magi’s journey and discovery, Eliot talks about the aftermath: “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms/But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/ with an alien people clutching their gods.”

To put that interpretation into a historical context, these Magi traveled from cities where the people (and probably they) worshipped a number of gods in a mish-mash polytheism common at the time. In the course of their journey, they discovered a new faith, a monotheism that one day would be known across the globe as Christianity. And so, when they returned to their homes, their status as “Christians” isolated them from the people they, not so long ago, counted as their own.

Have you ever felt that way? Like you’ve discovered a new way, a different perspective, a changed world, and yet you must live everyday in a place that remains locked in the status quo? Like you’ve been through a profound experience but have no one around you who can appreciate that experience or grasp its meaning? (Personally, I think Christians encounter this almost daily as they attempt to live out Christ-like lives in the world beyond their church walls. Try casually using the phrase, “Well, I always try to make our world a little more like the Kingdom of God” in a workplace conversation and watch the room slowly empty.)

In Eliot’s poem, the Magi recognize that what they discovered is The Truth, but they embrace that truth with regret. They are isolated. They had to let go of foundational beliefs and accept something foreign. They had to shed the ease of an old life to live in the discomfort of a changed one.

I hope that, with time, the Magi found joy and peace in their new world – that The Truth was more than ample reward for their pain and discomfort. I think we all would hope that, because we want to believe we also will be rewarded when we pledge ourselves to an absurd vision, when we chase after something no one else sees, and when we choose to live in a changed world.

Because, let’s face it: Without that kind of hope, we’ll likely ignore any “stars” that promise to guide us to The Truth.

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  1. Pain. Check. Discomfort. Check. Peace and Joy? Absolutely CHECK!

  2. Nice job, keep it up! Prophets of all persuasions and eras have had difficulties being accepted after they come down from the mountain top. Unfortunately, some of their severest critics come from within their own tribes or support groups. Not that I know this from personal experience, mind you.

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