Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2012
By Marjorie George
Here come the three wise men — third or fourth graders, usually — in the annual church Epiphany pageant, adorned in majestic robes that are a tad musty from being stored in a box in the Christian ed closet for the past year. Often, a band of angels, four-year olds who stumble over their too-long white tunics cut from bed sheets, accompanies them down the church aisle, along with some shepherds clad in flannel bathrobes and roped-cinched kitchen towels for headgear. They make their way toward the altar/manger where a baby doll rests in a wooden trough, being gazed upon by his beaming teenage parents. No matter that angels and shepherds do not appear in the biblical telling of the visit of the Magi to the Christ child; the story of the revelation of Christ to the gentile Magi is the story of the revelation of Christ to all mankind (See Matthew 2:1-12). Everything else is just details.
Cameras flash, grandmas lean forward in their pews, and every mother’s child is the cutest one in the Epiphany pageant. It’s a sweet memory for parents, a lesson about gifts for Baby Jesus for the kids.
Of course it’s pretty far from the facts of the actual visit of the Magi two thousand years ago. T.S. Eliot, in his memorable poem “The Journey of the Magi,” is more realistic in describing that trek:
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
Certainly, for the Jewish people at the time of Christ’s birth, the times were anything but sweet and pretty. They lived in an occupied land with few freedoms, their religion tolerated only to keep the peace. The ruler, Herod, dealt ruthlessly with real or suspected opponents (he had three of his sons and his wife Mariamne murdered), and when he learned from the Magi of the birth of Jesus, he slaughtered every Jewish child in the land under the age of two to prevent any threat to his throne.
But however we arrive at the Feast of the Epiphany, there is a piece of the telling that we cannot overlook. Do you remember what the Magi did after they paid homage to the child and recognized him for who he was? “They went home by another road” (Matthew 2:12).
Matthew, the only gospel writer to record the Magi’s visit, has it that they took an alternate route so as to protect the child from Herod, having been warned by God in a dream. But perhaps there is something else at work here. For it is my experience that whenever someone encounters the Christ and recognizes him for who he truly is, there is a call to go home by a different road. To encounter Christ is to be changed; it is to take up the challenge to live our lives in new ways.
And it is not always the easy road. The old road we know – we are familiar with the potholes, we know the speed bumps, we can navigate our way home with comfort and certainty. But that is not the way of the untraveled road or the untraveled life. A new road, an alternate route, presents us with unknown challenges. What kinds of demons may lurk behind roadside bushes? How many side roads might we be enticed to follow that ultimately lead to dead ends? Where are the turns, when will the pavement become a dirt road?
Then again, perhaps this new road will lead to horizons we have never before seen, take us to places we never knew existed, provide us with companions along the way we had never before known.
Matthew does not record if the Magi made it home safely. T. S. Eliot imagines that they did, but not unchanged.
“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation”
Eliot’s Magi experience their Christ-encounter as both a birth and a death. And it always is. God-in-Christ becomes real for us – whether we meet Him in a sweet manger or in the midst of a harsh winter – when we see him for ourselves. It is not sufficient to send a messenger and wait for the news to arrive; we ourselves must mount up and persist in seeking him. We must see him manifest in our very lives, bring him the gift of ourselves, shed ourselves of outworn ways, and accept the revelation he shows to us.
We would be fortunate if God would warn us in dreams when the old road has become more deadly than a new route is life-giving. And perhaps he does, if we will only see the signs.
Marjorie George is editor of ReflectionsOnline. Reach her at email@example.com, or leave a comment below.