Recently I learned that some people do not recognize Epiphany, and they do not put Magi (also called wise men) in their nativity decorations because the Magi might have been astrologers. The logic goes that since the Magi were astrologers or pagans, we should not honor them. We should not celebrate because they were not God-fearing people. I’ll be honest that when I first heard this argument, I was shocked. It seemed so strange to me. But, the more I’ve thought about it, the more concerned I have become by it.
The footnote in my New Oxford Annotated Study Bible suggests that “magoi” were dignitaries or emissaries sent from kings of other nations to pay respect and homage to newly crowned kings. The presence of the Magi in the narrative about the young Jesus suggests that other nations of the world recognized the kingship of Jesus rather than Herod’s rule. It’s much like efforts countries in the world today take to minimize the leadership of dictators, the systematic practice of refusing to acknowledge leadership that took power from the people by force.
But, even more than that, the presence of the Magi indicates from the very beginning God’s radically inclusive plan of salvation. Salvation was not just for one people group, one nationality, one group of religious elite. Salvation was something being made available even to the corners of the world. God’s plan of salvation was happening on a world stage, and not just a local one meant only for people who had done something to merit it. From the very beginning of the story about Jesus coming into the world, we meet a God who gives up glory and power to be near to humankind.
January 6 is Epiphany (also called Three Kings Day and Twelfth Day**), and it is the day in the church year where we remember the visit of the Magi. Even though the religious leaders of Israel did not recognize the importance of the birth of Jesus, others did. And this recognition began something new. Epiphany isn’t the end of a journey; it is the beginning of one. Epiphany is the day where we recognize both the legitimacy of God’s kingdom over and above that of the kingdoms of the word, and that God’s plan includes the nations of the world. Epiphany is the first moment when the Gentiles begin flocking to see Jesus, and throughout the Gospels we see this theme repeated. God’s plan of salvation is broader, farther reaching, far more encompassing than anyone first thought. Perhaps it reaches still farther than we can imagine even today.
Every year on Epiphany, I bake a Three Kings cake (rosca de reyes), and hide a baby Jesus inside. My kids fight over who gets the first piece of cake, and they both wait with bated breath to see if they might have baby Jesus inside their piece. Every year, we leave our Christmas decorations up through Epiphany, and we try to make a practice of teaching our kids that Christmas doesn’t end on December 25. But why? Why is Christmas a season and not just a day? Why should we celebrate Epiphany, that crazy day where people came from far away to offer gifts of worship and reverence to Jesus? Here are just a few reasons I celebrate Epiphany:
1. Epiphany reminds me that salvation isn’t just for people who are in the “elite.” God’s plan is so much bigger than anything I can imagine. Celebrating Epiphany reminds me to ask God to enlighten my eyes, to help me see the world God’s way.
2. Epiphany reminds me that Christmas is so much more than a one day celebration with expensive gifts and sugary foods. Christmas is a season, a time of celebration, a time of childlike wondering, a time of eager expectation because God is on the move in the world. Once December 25th comes and goes, the cultural craziness of Christmas ends, and an opportunity for deep, abiding reflection begins. I see Epiphany as an opportunity to reclaim the celebration of Christmas from the heavy cultural burdens we have placed on one specific date.
3. Epiphany commemorates the first-known indication that God’s love would be made available to the world, and not just one nationality. This is good news of great joy for all the people. Epiphany challenges any assumptions I might have for who God will accept and who God will reject. Epiphany reminds me that God’s plan is bigger than my plan.
4. Epiphany challenges me to be generous. The Magi brought gifts for Jesus. God’s grandeur and glory should propel me to bring gifts of worship, too. Perhaps this doesn’t mean offering gold, frankincense, and myrrh – or maybe it does – but I think it also means offering a cold cup of water to those who are thirsty, a place to warm up and find sanctuary from the cold to those who are without homes, sharing a meal, offering kindness, and showing love to those the world has taught us are on the fringes. I have a feeling that when we do this, we will experience the true meaning of Epiphany, and we will meet God in the places where we are.
If you celebrate Epiphany, what are some reasons you have for doing so? If you’ve never celebrated Epiphany, why not? If you’ve never heard of it before today, will you give it a shot? I’d love to have a conversation with you in the comments!
**Thanks to James Brumm for an important clarification in the comments. Epiphany is not the twelfth day of Christmas. That takes place on January 5. Some traditions will call the evening of January 5th into the morning of January 6th “Twelfth Night,” which can create some confusion. For a fuller explanation of the numbering of the days of Christmas, check out James’ insightful comment below.