Epiphany – a reflection on the coming of the Magi

We often think about Epiphany – if we think about it at all! – as being the end of Christmas. And so it is, technically – it is its own festival season. In the church, we celebrate Christmas from Christmas Day until “12thnight” – the 5th of January – and then Epiphany from 6thJanuary until Candlemas, at the beginning of February. Collectively, the two seasons are sometimes known as “Christmastide”.

Epiphany completes the traditional “nativity” scene – the arrival of the “Three Kings” or Magi. They come, they leave their gifts, and they go back home. Thus they neatly complete Isaiah’s prophecy and our crib scenes. 

But I think there is much more to be learnt from them than that cosy image of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, Magi and Christ-child.

St Matthew doesn’t say much about them – not even how many there were! – but he does record two key things about them. Firstly, they bowed down and worshiped the child.

These men – and, as I am regularly reminded by Wendy, possibly women too! – weren’t Jewish. They came from the gentile nations instead. A tradition originating in the early Armenian and Eastern churches, has named them as Melchior, a king of Persia; Caspar, a king of India, and Balthasar, a king from Arabia. They were thus held to come from the North, the East and the South, and symbolise all the peoples of the Earth coming together to worship Christ. So for those of us in far north-western Europe – known but exotic and remote to the Greek and Roman world of the first century – Epiphany is the opening of the gift of God to us, as well as to the Jewish people! It’s a recognition of Christ’s role as king of all peoples, Lord of all Lords, across the world.

To take it a little further, the word “magus” probably derives from a priestly caste in Zoroastrianism. As astrologers, they can be considered to be the scientists of their day, seeking hidden meanings in the movements of the stars and planets. We can see in this the profound truth that all seeking after truth will eventually lead us to the crib and to the Christ-child.

But what do we find in the crib?

Well, secondly, those magi brought gifts. And like so much else, are both practical and symbolic. We know that King Herod was deeply displeased at the thoughts of any rivals – and that the Holy Family have to flee as refugees to Egypt shortly after the visit of the Magi. Soon a practical level, gold, frankincense and myrrh are highly valuable and fungible – they could be sold or exchanged more or less anywhere in the east.

But of course, there’s more to it than that. 

As our next carol (one of my favourites!) makes clear, gold is the symbol for kingship. It can also be considered as the medium of commerce, indicating that all power – political and economic – lies at the feet of that little baby – who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Frankincense was then, and still is, used in worship. I don’t know if my friend Rev Steve is reading this, but if so, we all remember the clouds of incense in Christ Church from the large thurible in a very small church! Incense is the language and the symbol of religion and worship. All religion is laid at the feet of the child – who is our great high priest, and is himself God.

And myrrh is used in the anointing of the dead, symbolising Christ’s role as a sacrifice for our sake. But it was also used in ancient times as a medicine for healing the sick. At the feet of the baby are symbolically laid our mortalityand the means for our healing. These too are his to use and to conquer, as the great healer of nations, and as a symbol of his defeat of death itself when he rose from the grave at what we now call Easter.

So how do we respond to all that?

Well, I believe that if we honestly seek truth, eventually we come in some sense to Christ. And at his feet we must lay everything – our wealth and power, our worship and religion, our fears and our sufferings. We are all invited to the crib – whoever and wherever we are. Whatever our background, wealth, ethnicity, political or religious views, we are all invited to lay down our burdens and our treasures at his feet. Our burdens he can carry. Our treasures he can find new uses for. 

And us? For him, we are the treasures to be loved, and saved, and carried on the road.

And then we must follow him. No-one promised us an easy journey, and this last year has I think been difficult and tragic and hard for us all. 

Likewise, the road that starts in a festive Christmas scene goes on in into deeper and darker places, into his death on Good Friday, and then into the glorious light of his resurrection at Easter. But you know what? The light is always there. Like the magi followed that star, we must follow the light of God, because along the road, he walks with us, and at the end of the road, he is there to meet us.

Who is this baby? Whoever we are, wherever we are, he is our master, father, friend, and saviour. 

For all of us, he was, and is, and always will be King, and God, and sacrifice.

Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace – goodwill to us all.

One Reply to “Epiphany – a reflection on the coming of the Magi”

  1. This was my first service I’ve attended at St. Michael De Rupe. I loved the whole Magi theme of the carol service but in particular this talk by David Harris. It was uplifting & inspiring & moving. Thank you. It was a wonderful way to start the new year.

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