Today, January 6th is the twelfth day of Christmas and the celebration of the Epiphany. Epiphany, from Greek epiphaneia, means ‘manifestation.’ It is the holiday that commemorates the first manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles, represented by the visit of the Magi or three kings who followed the star to Bethlehem. Matthew’s gospel records the story in Chapter Two.
I recently was thinking about these wisemen. I wonder if what they saw in the stars has far more resonance internally than externally? I wonder this because it’s my experience that one doesn’t become overjoyed to the point of worshipping a peasant baby because they read the stars right. Being right about some astrological knowledge is worth of a high five or maybe some prize from the International Society for Astrological Research but bowing in worship– becoming humble instead of celebrating — to me that says something deeper is happening here; something internally is brewing.
I think Walt Disney taps into this deeper meaning a bit in the movie of Pinocchio with the opening song, “When you Wish Upon a Star:”
Walt Disney has made billions making wishes and dreams come true. It’s truly amazing. There is something powerful in having the deep longings of one’s heart made a reality. It can seem like magic. It can fill us with joy.
But the star the Magi followed and the longings of their hearts -seem to me- to be more than a personal wish. The longing here is not something animatronics can fulfill or trick the mind into thinking the wish has come true. The longing in the Epiphany story is for something much larger and greater; it’s for something more than what one person wants, it’s a longing of all our hearts —the whole world’s— to be met.
Matthew gives us a clue to that longing in his citation of Micah found in verse 5: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are certainly not the least important among the towns of Judah. A ruler will come out of you. He will rule my people Israel like a shepherd.” (Micah 5:2)
God’s people were ruled by tyrants and oligarchs. At the top were the Romans who brought world peace, by brutal force and domination. In the middle were despot governors and kings who let their appointment to power fuel their narcissism and never acted in the interest of their people, but instead these men sought how to gain more power and authority for themselves. It was under this kind of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ that God’s people lived – in fact, most people (the Magi included) lived with that kind of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ in that day (and in ours, too).
The longing Micah names –which I think resides in the Magi’s hearts, in Matthew’s people and in us — is to come under the rule of One who loves and cares for their people as if they were of great worth, not some commodity. One who serves and protects, not one who oppresses and destroys. One who will go after the one sheep who has gone astray; not one who expels or diminishes the non-conformers. The longing is for One who loves us because we exist; not one who exploits our existence to benefit themselves at any cost. I think that was the longing in the hearts of those Magi and I know that same longing is in my heart, too.
When the Magi arrived in the royal city of Jerusalem and found that the rich and powerful were clueless as to what they saw God doing, I suspect the Magi’s doubt doubled, but their longing increased that the stars had shown God was fulfilling their longing. When the star went on the move again, this time leading them to the backwater town of Bethlehem and to the lowly residence of the holy family, what they saw filled them with joy to the point of overflowing.
Immediately the Magi saw that God had done something different. Their longing was fulfilled because God had come not as one to rule, but as one to serve. Not powerful and protected, but vulnerable and meek. This new king would rule in a new way – unlike any before- and this was worthy of their worship and praise. What their eyes saw in Bethlehem was a surprising fulfillment of the deepest desire of their hearts. The first gift these Magi gave the holy family wasn’t in boxes or bags, it was the gift of their worship and praise for God who hadn’t just made some wishes come true; the deep longing for all the world was now present before them.
Fast forward to today and we discover that the Magi’s longing is still here and present before us and in us – to be truly free and for all to have a life where everyone is safe and valued simply because they exist. And yet if we lack societal privilege, we don’t have that freedom or liberty.
In our weakest moments, we want someone to come in and rule us, to tell others what to do, to legislate our ideals because we’re so self-assured of what is right. But that power corrupts, destroys, and no matter how benevolent the person, human lordship eventually steals our freedom and soul. Instead, the newborn king Jesus gives his very life so that we might be free from the oppressive powers of sin and death that make up injustice and oppression. The new king gives his life so that all may live eternally and have life abundantly- -with freedom and liberty–in the present.
And we know that what God has done in Jesus Christ was a true threat to the existing and prevailing powers – because Herod, Pilate, and even our lesser selves will work hard to silence, remove, and extinguish that threat. And still our shepherd king has come. Come to lead us to the abundant life we so long for. The life God promises to all who follow the light of the star.