Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The festival of Epiphany is celebrated around the world in a variety of ways. In Central Europe people sing carols and walk from house to house marking the front door with the sign of the star, the numbers of the new year, and the letters CMB. The letters recall the traditional names of the three kings Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. They are also an acronym for the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat. Christ Bless this House. In France, mothers bake a royal cake with a little toy doll in the center. Whoever finds the toy is the king for the day. My favorite tradition is that of Spain and in Latin America. Children go out on January 5th to find the greenest blades of grass, and they place these in a shoebox or a basket under the bed along with a bowl of water, in hope that the camels of the three kings will stop at their homes on January 6th, and bring them presents just as they brought gifts to the Christ Child.
For some the story of Epiphany and the Wisemen simply reads as the final, wistful chapter in the Christmas story. But for me, there is something more. I love Epiphany and I love the star. I love singing loudly and robustly, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and the “The First Noel.” No matter how much the Christmas tree in our home is shedding its needles, I insist that it remain standing through Epiphany. Of course, I love the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but I must confess I don’t feel a strong connection to the lowly shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem or to the heavenly angels. I do, however, feel a kindred spirit with the Wisemen from the East journeying from afar searching for the wisdom that this newborn king will offer.
There is even something poignant and timely about they’re being late to Bethlehem. Certainly the Wisemen’s arrival in ancient Palestine could have been better timed. Twelve days after Jesus’ birth is just on the edge of acceptability. They could have arrived without creating such a stir with King Herod and the royal court in Jerusalem. More importantly, they could have chosen more age-appropriate gifts. As a dear friend wrote in her Christmas card hinting that the celebration of Epiphany would be different if three wise women had made the journey instead of three wise men. “Three wise women,” she wrote, “would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and there would have, been peace on earth.” One thing, however, must be said. Seeing Jesus in his mother’s arms was not simply a highlight of a “pandemic year of disappointments.” It was a transformational moment- an epiphany if you will, and they were changed.
Isn’t that what we all want from our celebration of Christ’s birth? We want to be touched by our meeting with this Christ Child. We want to be moved to the core that lies deep within us that is hungering and yearning for something more. We want to be as excited by our faith as the shepherds to go out and tell it on the mountains, and to be as emboldened and courageous as the Wisemen who dared to disobey King Herod. Unfortunately, for many of us, when Christmas is over and the tree is tossed out, nothing has changed. That doesn’t have to be.
Epiphany offers another possibility to that same old, same old. The shepherds, of course, had an advantage. The angel of the Lord told them what they were looking for and they didn’t have far to travel. And when they arrived at the manger, they saw the child wrapped in linen cloths just as it had been told them. The Wisemen from the east, however, had to work. They were searching for something they could not know. But when they did see Jesus, and knelt down and worshiped him, they knew that life was different.
My friends, if you are searching the horizon for some new beginning that will lead you to a new more fulfilling relationship with your family, with your faith, and with yourself, let me suggest three insight drawn from the story Wisemen of old. For ultimately the story of the Wisemen is a witness of men who refused to give in to the same old, same old. They were men who believe in something more that could be found in the Christ Child.
Let me begin by noting that the Wisemen did not stumble upon Jesus by accident. They were led by the hope of discovering something different for their lives. They were drawn to the Star of Bethlehem, which their books could not explain, and so they left everything to find it .
I imagine, we all know that kind of longing, but maybe have not been able to leave everything behind to find it. Would the scholars of today leave their comfortable offices and long tenure in search of this wisdom? Some people we know spend their lives traveling in search of something they cannot really name, some experience, some insight, some epiphany, and they are unable to rest until they find it- if they find it all. They’re restless wanderers- unfocused in their pursuits.
The Wisemen, however, began their search by pursuing what they knew best- the stars. They were astrologers and interpreters of the skies who knew the paths of the stars through the constellations. They also knew the promises and prophecies of ancient scripture. So when they saw a new star appear in the sky entering into the constellation for the house of Israel, they knew that they had to travel to Jerusalem. They were profoundly curious and were driven by their hungering for wisdom. But that did not lead them to Bethlehem.
No, the wise men were drawn by the mystery of that particular, elusive, unexplainable star. Knowledge and truth had led them to Jerusalem. But it was the elusive, guiding star that led them from the Holy City to the place of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Along the way, they encountered disappointment, frustrations and delays. They were convinced that the new born king was to be born in Jerusalem, and were dismayed that their search had ended in Herod’s palace with the startled and befuddled faces of the nation’s wisest men staring blankly at them. They needed to work to remain hopeful.
Isn’t that how we all entered this new year? We thought we knew where we were headed and there was such positive momentum at the end of the year. We certainly didn’t anticipate having mask mandates in Minneapolis in 2022. We didn’t expect to know break-through cases in our own families of loved ones who are fully vaccinated and boostered. Personally, you didn’t foresee your company would decide to downsize at this time just as you had been accepted into an experimental medical procedure, or that your family member would be diagnosed with cancer. You hadn’t planned on your father’s dementia progressing so quickly. We can all feel frustrated and dismayed, but like the Wisemen we can choose to not give up and give in. Instead, we can choose hope which is what the Wisemen discovered in that elusive, unexplainable star.
That is the power of hope in our lives, and it often visits us in occasions of mystery- of things we cannot explain. In my mind it is when you allow yourself to be exposed to the presence of God, to be surrounded by the company of fellow believers, to be captured in prayer, to be embraced in his holy sanctuary. Most likely you will not see a guiding star rimming the horizon, nor will you be greeted by a host of angels on a hill overlooking the city. God will remain veiled to you and by his Holy Spirit, he will tap you on the shoulder through the mystery of the Word and Sacraments. God chooses not to overwhelm your intellect- for then he would violate your integrity. But instead he will simply whisper into the ear of your soul and gently persuade you to have faith. That is what the Wisemen experienced when they saw the star reappear. In spite of their knowledge of the skies, they were open to the mystery of a star.
Then finally, hope and faith, as in the action of the Wisemen means that you have to take a chance – you have to make a commitment before all the evidence is in – before the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted. We do not know that the wise men ever saw the resurrected Jesus. Nor did they see the Lord in his ascended glory sitting at the right hand of the Father. The home they visited in Bethlehem was not a royal drawing room. The virgin Mary was a young peasant girl. Joseph was a village carpenter. But led by their hungering for knowledge and truth, sustained by God’s mysterious revealing star, they took a chance, they committed themselves to a tiny child. “They were overwhelmed with joy, and on entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” That was their epiphany.
The Wisemen of scripture were on a quest as they traveled to find the truth. They had great distances to travel; they faced physical dangers and the possible revenge of a paranoid king. But in the process of searching, they were changed by the power of hope. And they went home by another road.
The Good News and the great surprise of the Epiphany story is that you and I do not need to travel far to hear or discover the Christ Child, God’s gift of hope yourself. Oh, your arrival at the feet of the Christ Child, may be as delayed by doubts and detours. There may be roadblocks erected along the way. But do not give up on the promise. Since the birth of Christ, Jesus, our Emmanuel, we have been given the assurance and the hope that God is with us now. Yes, God is with us now whenever his people gather in his name, and wherever they worship him. And there is nothing that can take the strength of that hope away from you. But it may take work to train your eyes to see the mysterious. My friends, may that be your Covid, transformational moment- your personal epiphany this year- do not fall back into the same old, same old. Like the Wisemen of old, you too can live and walk by a new way. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen