The feast of the Epiphany is a time to recall the visit of the astrologers from the East, Gentiles no less, bearing gifts and praising the Jewish infant who would prove to be the long-awaited Messiah. The story of the visit of the three wise men depicted in the gospel of Matthew is filled with high drama and twists. It features long journeys, guiding stars, ominous danger, holy dreams, great escapes, and of course a threatened baby. “Epiphany” a Greek word which “means to make manifest, is given to a specific moment in time when three wise men would be the first Gentiles to see in the flesh, the Savior of the world.
We hear this story only once a year, yet this story is so pregnant with symbolism that I would venture to say that most people innately have some sense of the importance of the visitors, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar as they have come to be known. For anyone who seeks the truth it is uncanny how similar our story is with these men.
The Scripture tells us that our visitors from the East were Magi which was a term referred to as “one skilled in knowledge of the occult.” At the time of Jesus’ birth, it was believed that when a significant person is to be born, the skies will herald the occasion. It was also expected and thought that the birth of a king would be accompanied by signs in the heavens. Nature would be caught up in the significance of it all. Tradition has called these men astrologers, or kings, but in reality, it is irrelevant what title we give them – what is important is that they were learned men who sought after the truth. The reason that they were wise is their goal, their mission in life was to seek out the truth. They were following their highest call, to seek after the truth, to notice the truth when they saw it, and to follow the path wherever it led.
Historically, in 7 B.C., the planets of Jupiter and Venus, and later of Jupiter and Saturn were viewed in different alignments than was normally observed. The occurrence was significant enough to make the wise men believe that an important ruler was to appear in Palestine. They set out on their journey expecting to find a king who star they were following. But here is the catch– there was already at that time a king in Palestine. This did not daunt these wise men, for they continued to follow a path that defied what most people would view as foolish. Why search out a king who is an infant, when there is already a king?
The ruling king was of course, Herod. A man who was so fearful and afraid that he had murdered his wife, two of her sons and even his own eldest son, just in case they might conspire against him. Herod looked to kill yet again, and tried to manipulate the wise men into his scheme to kill what he thought was his potential rival. Matthew describes the encounter, “Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.”
After the visit with Herod, they found the infant and offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold was given to recognize Jesus’ kingship; frankincense used in the temple worship by priests; and, myrrh used to embalm the dead. King, High Priest and Redeemer– the gifts foretold Jesus’ nature and mission.
And then, a holy dream which instructed the wise men to go back from whence they came by a different route. Herod’s plans were ultimately thwarted even though he had the blood of many innocent children already on his hands, and through divine providence, Jesus would not be one of them. Good outlasted the power of evil; light crushed the emptiness of darkness.
The high drama of this story is the drama that every person encounters who seeks after the truth. Indeed, the journey can be long, but along the route there are many guiding stars (God’s grace and our opportunities) directing us almost in a fantastic way to His truth. Sadly, you will encounter unscrupulous individuals who will try and dissuade from seeking the truth or manipulate you to doing their bidding of evil. All will happen, but your resolve for the truth will only be out matched by God’s help given to you throughout your journey.
Don’t think for a minute, the Magi story or the “Epiphany” is only the story of the three wise men. It is the story of every person who seeks out the truth in their own life. The journey, like that of the kings will not be without some challenge, but rest assured, the “Epiphany” or manifestation of God in Jesus Christ will always be worth the effort.