The story of the Epiphany is much more than a legend or a religious fairy-tale. We are often told that Luke is a careful historian, but this reading makes it clear that Matthew is as well. He locates this incident in a specific time and place: in Bethlehem, in the reign of Herod the King. What we have heard is a story rooted in reality, not just a fable. Of course there are problems: we find it hard to accept the idea of a star leading the way, and then standing still, as Matthew says, but the basic idea of a new star appearing and being interpreted as a sign that a great ruler had been born is perfectly plausible within the thinking of the time. And it was a great act of faith for these men – not actually stated in the account as being three – to leave their own country, their homes and families in search of this new king.
The star was no magic light, infallibly showing the way — the Magi had to ask the way, they had to consult others as to where they could expect the new king to be born. And Herod is certainly no cartoon character. He really was an evil and ruthless king – he had one of his wives and two of his sons murdered. And for all the beauty of paintings of the adoration of the Magi, the harsh reality is that Mary had to give birth in a stable because there was no room elsewhere. The stable was not some sanitised ideal, but a desperate last resort. Even the traditional interpretation of the three gifts contains a realistic warning: the myrrh points to the child’s future death and burial. The shadow of the Cross prevents us from romanticising too much.
If this story really were a piece of escapist writing, it would end with the scene of the Magi doing homage to the Christ child. In the films, that’s where the credits would start to roll. But Scripture gives us a very telling, realistic ending to the story: “they returned to their own country by a different way,” as most translations put it. They leave the scene – the Magi return to their homes, but they return to their everyday lives changed by their encounter with Jesus. And this is very significant. Let’s be honest. Religion can easily turn into a form of escapism, a fix to get us through the day, the week, the year, and pie in the sky when you die. But that is not what the Christian faith is about. The Epiphany is no magical legend about beautiful babies, sweet-smelling stables and visiting kings, to be forgotten until next Christmas.
Just as the Magi spotted the star, and understood its significance, so we too are called to read the signs of our times, to be alert to God speaking to us in our lives. We are called to have the courage to act on our convictions, to leave our old familiar securities and embark on the journey of discovering or rediscovering God. We are challenged to recognise the presence of God in the particular circumstances of our lives. The Magi saw beyond the baby in the stable and recognised the very presence of God, the Word made flesh. And so they adored. We too are called to recognise the presence of the Lord in this world, his world —not the next, but here and now, in the people and events of our lives, and, I would suggest, particularly those we find difficult. And once we do that, we are asked, like the Magi, not to keep this to ourselves but to ‘return home’, to let others know that this world really is charged with the glory and the presence of God, if only we would open our eyes to see it.
Christianity is not a way of escaping the harshness of this life. God does not want to help us escape. He comes to be one of us, to be one with us, to ask us to join Him in participating in His work of creation and His work of redemption. That is the mystery of the incarnation. He asks us to help make His presence and glory manifest, evident, in our world.
Fr. Edward Bryant