Thursday, January 8, 2009
This week I wrote to the Diocese about Epiphany, one of my favorite seasons...
Even for Western Europeans, Twelfth Night, which used to formally mark the end of the Christmas season, is now mostly forgotten. I try to be a purist and keep my Christmas decorations up until tonight, but I think I am the only one on the block. As for Christmas music on the radio, forget it! That disappeared at noon on Christmas day!
Biblically, the central characters of Epiphany are the Magi or Wise men, mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew. Although we usually like to make their arrival the spectacular climax of our Christmas pageants, giving them the title of Kings (because of the Old Testament prophecy about “kings shall come to the brightness of thy rising”), or bestowing upon them exotic names like Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior (not done until the 8th Century), or even assuming that there were three of them (because of the three gifts mentioned), Matthew had something else in mind. He mentions them, not because they were so grand and wise, but because in his day they would have been considered odd and rather, well, dumb. The word Magi, comes from the Greek magoi, the root of our English word, “magician.” What we are dealing with is something like ancient near eastern astrologers (hence their interest in the star over Bethlehem). But to Hebrew minds such astrologers would have been considered as sorcerers, a practice prohibited in the Torah. Not only were they theologically suspect, but they were politically dense. Going to King Herod, a raving paranoid despot, to ask where they might find his successor was hardly a bright idea!
Just as Luke has Jesus’ birth welcomed by shepherds, also ritually unclean occupation with a reputation of dishonesty, so Matthew has Jesus welcomed by a committee of “cracked-brain astrologers.” Once again, it seems that God picks the most unlikely, the most politically suspect marginalized, the most socially marginalized people to do God’s work. And that, my friends, is good news for us!
Like the Magi, many of us have come a long way (physically and emotionally) to Christianity. Just as they did, we have scanned the heavens for a sign of hope. We too have wondered if this little baby could somehow be the answer to our prayers. Like them we might not be the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree. But we are wise about one thing-- like those oddballs from the East, we seek Jesus still.