Epiphany is my favorite day in the church year. It is the 12th day of Christmas – the one of the 12 drummers drumming. That isn’t the reason I like it, but it doesn’t hurt. It celebrates the day that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem and saw Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us.
The birth of Jesus was unremarkable. It happened to two weary travelers, swept up in the hubbub of a random government mess. There was a census. Everybody had to go to their birth-towns to be registered, without any consideration of ability or inconvenience. Here were these two ordinary people, doing what they had to do. There was no place to stay for them, even though the woman was very noticeably pregnant. Nobody took mercy on them. They weren’t special. They weren’t anybody to look twice at. The child was born without any midwives or even friends around. The story could have ended here, with this tiny new family just doing their duty in a strange town, strangers themselves.
Mary knew something was different, and Joseph, her espoused husband had an idea as well. Both had been told in varying ways that God needed them to do something a little different than the usual. God had a habit of calling people in those days – Hey, Moses! Hey, Samuel! Hey, Isaiah! And the answer was “Here I am.” But for most of those people it made sense. There was a definite sense that this was indeed a call from God. Things clicked into place. Their army won. People listened to them. God was working through them to make His will happen in this world.
But this was different. Bring forth the Messiah? Wow. That was a biggie. There wasn’t a blueprint for that. And what if you were just imagining it? Gosh, wouldn’t you look gullible. I can only imagine the looks Mary got from her friends and neighbors when she became noticeably pregnant and wasn’t married to Joseph yet. Gossip spreads very quickly in small towns. That had to be hard on her. She knew the truth, but it wasn’t exactly something you could tell even your friends about. “That Mary, she’s crazy. Thinks she is pregnant with the Messiah. Right, pull the other leg.”
So there we have this tiny new family, jostled about, uncertain, helpless and clueless. They are going on the word of angels and dreams in the night. They have no proof that anything that they are going through is real. It could all be in their heads. Why would God choose them? Surely if this was the Messiah something better would be happening. Surely the Christ deserves a better place to be born. A dirty, smelly stable, filled with noisy farm animals? You have got to be kidding. This can’t be what we thought it would be. We must have been imagining things.
Then people start arriving. First, it is the shepherds. They were called out of their fields by an angel. They were sent to worship this tiny, helpless child, cared for by his inexperienced parents. When they told Mary and Joseph what the angel had told them, there is a really interesting verse. “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) This is her first hint to her that maybe she isn’t crazy. Maybe this is really real. Maybe everything she was told and everything she has been taught has finally come to pass, right here, with her at the epicenter of this Earth-changing event.
A little more time goes by, and then the Magi come. The Magi are sometimes known as the Three Kings. They were most likely fortunetellers, magicians, seers. They were good at reading signs and portents. They were learned. And from their studies, they knew that something amazing was about to happen. Magi were priests of the Zoroastrian faith – a faith based out of Persia. They believed that the Divine was about to become incarnate – to take on human form.
They have wandered through the desert, at night, following only a star. There was no map. There was no GPS. There was no guidebook. This was a new event. Like the pillar of fire at night that led the Israelites in the desert for 40 years, they had only a God-given phenomenon to follow. They followed it at night, most likely stumbling over rocks and small shrubs. They follow this star, this strange moving star that has led them to the unremarkable, backwoods town. When these strangers show up looking for the incarnation of God, they had to create quite a scene. I suspect their unusual clothing made them stick out. Perhaps they had odd accents. They certainly weren’t from around there. They certainly weren’t Jewish, either. When they arrived, bearing gifts for the Christ-child, they were a sign. They were proof that the visions and dreams pointed to something even bigger than Mary or Joseph could ever imagine. They were Gentiles, non-Jews, here to celebrate that the world had changed.
The Magi are a sign to us that God is real, that He is here with us. God loves us enough to come down to Earth and experience life from our perspective. This is a game-changer. The Creator, the Divine, the Godhead is no longer an impersonal, dictatorial Thing, but a very real, approachable person who loves us unconditionally and unreservedly.
The Magi are also examples of how to follow God. We all have our times of following God like the Magi did. Some dim star, far away, beckons. The only way we can follow it is to go on foot, in the dark. The way is slow and there are no guideposts. We walk in faith, following in trust and hope. We stumble. We get turned around. But again and again we re-align to the star, knowing that it leads us in the right direction.
May your Epiphany be blessed, and may you always follow the Star.