The season of Epiphany began January 6th and continues until Ash Wednesday. Epiphany, in the Greek, could be likened to a manifestation, a striking appearance, or a vision of God.
In the Western Church, an epiphany is had by the wise men, who came bearing gifts to the infant Jesus. And so Epiphany is inaugurated by the retelling of the story of these magi from the east.
I like to think of this time as the last chance we get to celebrate the Christmas story before moving on to the new year.
And when I was in campus ministry at the University of Kansas, it became important because the Christmas season either fell too close to finals and then winter break. There was no chance to celebrate this season with college students. So in January ,as students would come back from their break, we would host an Epiphany party. It was one of the biggest celebrations in our student ministry.
But what is being celebrated? And what take away can progressive Christians have from this story? In this sermon, I’d like to identify some possible take aways.
Religious pluralism starts the Christian story.
Some scholars believe the wise men were from Persia. They were likely Zoroastrian, an Iranian based monotheistic faith that predates Christianity and modern Judaism. They were the first to recognize God’s work in Jesus. They had an epiphany of what God was doing in Jesus and they traveled far to see this for themselves.
And yet they never converted. They didn’t convert to the Judaism of Jesus’s family. They certainly did not become Christian! The wise men could recognize God’s work in Jesus and remain true to their own religious faith.
And this is the beginning of the Christian story. The story that involves another religion all together and how these wise men could see God in a religious context not of their own. Can we do likewise? Can we as Christians recognize God’s work in other religions not of our own?
It’s hard to not think of Islam in this regard. A religion which also originally came from the Near East, which also recognizes God’s work in the story of Jesus, of his birth, and of the importance of Mary. Islam recognizes what the Wise Men recognized; God can be found in another religion. If Christianity took that seriously, you might end up with something like progressive Christianity.
The wise men’s non-participation with injustice.
When Herod finds out there is to be a potential rival, a future king of Judea that could overturn his reign, he is frightened and wants to find out where this future king is.
He consults with the wise men, but after the wise men find the child, they don’t go back to Herod to report on his location. In fact they don’t go back to Herod at all. Receiving a vision (maybe of Herod’s plans?) they avoid him and go back to their own homeland.
There is no injustice that does not require participation by many hands.
If there is to be mass deportation, this will requires colleges, communities, state governments, and law enforcement to go along with this. Sanctuary cities have rejected this effort at mass deportation. I think we’ll have to get used to saying no a lot in the coming years. We’ll have the wise men as guides in this.
That doesn’t mean that Herod did not seek his revenge. He didn’t take it out on Persia. He took it out on the weakest and most vulnerable as he ordered the execution of the first born males of the land.
Some scholars think the slaughter of the innocents is a mythic account, not history.
And yet the slaughter of the innocents happens all the time in our world.
Think Syria. Where over half a million Syrians have been killed by the regime! Think of how many other wars have taken the lives of children and families. In Yemen, in Afghanistan, in places all over the world.
Matthew 2:13: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were 2 years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah 18: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.
Matthew 2:13a: an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[a] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
In Matthew’s account, Mary, Joseph and Jesus are refugees. They are political/religious refugees and must flee to Egypt for their lives. Historical? That is debated. But is it true? Certainly.
For our world is filled with refugees from despotic regimes who will kill children and families to stay in power. There are over 500,000 Syrian refugees today in Egypt from Syria.
There are a total of five million refugees and immigrants in Egypt, the largest number coming from the Sudan. Those numbers are hard to grasp or put a face to. So, let’s put the faces of Mary, Joseph and Jesus onto these refugees.
When the founding story of your faith involves refugees could this impact the way we talk about refugees?
The story of Epiphany invites us to identify with refugees, the marginal.
A Christian faith that fails at identification with refugees has betrayed its founding story.
Epiphany, like Christmas, is a story of role reversals.
The wise men, the magi, the kings that came to kneel before a child is a powerful image in a society where children counted for little.
While folks fuss about the wise men being included in a nativity scene, I don’t have a problem with it. Those who do are trying to put the Christmas story into a timeline that doesn’t fit. Myths don’t happen in time, they happen in every time and place.
There is no way to create a timeline out of mythic accounts.
And what could be more true than a homeless family, a refugee family, a teenager mother, a Jewish family under Roman occupation, staying in a barn, with farm animals and wise men kneeling before an encounter with the holy? With God?
And how are refugees to encounter God except if we do the work of welcoming them? And holding our governments to account in supporting an open door for those fleeing war? How are the persecuted to experience God unless we take action to hold governments to account in how they treat their citizens? How are the dispossed to experience God unless there is in fact room at the inn?
We are the light that has come to the degree that we embody God’s aims in the world
Which leads me to this poem by the African American theologian Howard Thuman which I will close with:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings