Epiphany, the feast of Christ’s revelation, focuses on Christ, the light of the world, drawing believers and non-believers to the place where God became incarnated as a vulnerable child amid persecution and despair. The date for Epiphany was determined in the year 300 in the East and was soon also celebrated as the festival of Christ’s birth in the West. In the Western tradition, from the 13th century on, the feast concentrated on the three magi, “wise men,” and interpreted them as kings coming from the East. In some countries, children dress up as the “three kings,” visit houses and write a blessing for the new year on top of the entrance door, while collecting money for diaconal activities. In the Western tradition, Epiphany, or the “day of the three kings,” comes in a natural line after the celebration of Christmas, 12 days after Christmas day, and closely connected with the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, then his family’s flight from Herod to Egypt, and finally their settling in Nazareth, in accordance with the Old Testament prophecies.
Bible passage: Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
This brief episode in Mathew’s gospel has captured the imagination of Christians for centuries and informed the formation of numerous legends. The magi came to be identified as wise men, kings, or astrologists. In the Western church, they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, without biblical reference. The magi in Matthew 2 are depicted as persons who do as they are instructed, follow their call, seek no honour for themselves, and gladly humble themselves by kneeling before a woman and a child, the way servants do. The magi are persons coming from afar, not belonging to the Jewish community, to whom God reveals what is hidden through Christ, the light revealing himself through his leading star. Even as a baby, Jesus inspires both worship and hostility – themes that become central throughout all of the evangelist Matthew’s narrative.
The magi thus represent the first of many people and characters described in Matthew’s gospel that worship Jesus. The Greek word chosen for the magi’s worship, proskyne’o, is used for devotion shown to God alone (Matt. 4:11). Thus, when the magi worship Jesus according to the story in Matthew 2, they worship God, who is present through and in the boy child Jesus.
The story also reveals the hostility against Jesus and his family from the powerful people of his time, resulting in the family’s flight to Egypt to escape prosecution and death.
In our biblical story, Christ’s love can be identified with the light coming from the manger. God, who has become human, attracts people from far away in the most unexpected ways and moves them toward God. The magi, obviously non-believers, men with a pagan background, not knowing anything about this “king of the Jews,” are called to seek for him and worship God who is present as a small child in a manger. They are the ones who find the holy family, not King Herod and his advisors, the “chief priests and teachers of the law.” The magi, without knowing it, also carry a core role in the drama which is going to happen: the persecution and murder of boys under two years of age, and the dramatic escape of Jesus and his parents to Egypt.
The text reveals how God manifests Godself to people outside the religious community. There is no “inside” and “outside.” Indeed, those who were perceived as outsiders are in the end the ones who are inside and who recognize the identity of God and truly worship him, as incarnated in Jesus. God calls the people to follow his light. Some will follow the call, some will not. But all are called to seek for God, and all are called to seek together in unity and for unity. The unity in faith that humankind is called to seek is a call from God to jointly follow the light leading us to the manger.
Yet, there is nothing in our text that glorifies what is happening. The gifts brought by the magi – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – were traditional gifts for a king but also gifts used to prepare a body for burial. Even from the beginning, Matthew establishes Jesus’ royalty and points to the work he is going to do at Easter: his death on the cross and resurrection.
The story of the magi also clearly points to the faith that God’s salvation is for all people, including those who were perceived to be non-believers but are drawn toward Christ by his light and call to worship and service. The story of Matthew reminds us that distinctions between “insiders” and “outsiders” began to erode with the coming of Christ and have vanished. Some who were perceived to be “insiders” (Herod’s advisors) were “outsiders.” The outsiders, the foreign and unknown magi who humbly followed the light of a star, became those who found the truth in Jesus.
Unity in faith is not constituted by personal achievements or a specific status, but by the will to seek together toward God’s light, toward God in the manger, toward God who became poor and persecuted, in Jesus Christ.
Christ’s call to follow him is thus also a call to unity of humankind, a call to look after the light of Christ together, to seek after the right ways to find God in the manger, and to truly worship him. In this way, the story of Epiphany also becomes a radical call to unity in faith and worship, witness, and service. The church’s observance of Epiphany ought not to be a triumphal celebration for those who have seen the light because of their privileged status, but is a strong reminder to us that God’s glory may be manifested where we least expect it. Sometimes Christ’s light even shines through our light, when God’s people become the light for others (Isa. 60:3; Eph. 3:10).
Christ’s light can move the world to unity in faith and humanity when together being drawn to Christ by his light to serve as the light to the world in proclamation, witness, and service, diakonia.
Questions for further reflection
- Where can we look for the light of Christ in our own life, communities, societies?
- Who are the insiders and outsiders in our communities?
- What does it mean to us to seek for unity in faith?
- What does it mean to us to seek for unity in witness and service?
- How can we contribute to spread Christ’s light to our own contexts?
Lord God, on this day you revealed your Son to the nations by the leading of a star. Lead us now by faith to know your presence in our lives, and bring us at last to the full vision of your glory, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Lutheran Book of Worship)
Hymn: “Deilig er den himmel blå”
Bright and glorious is the sky,
Radiant are the heavens high
Where the golden stars were shining
And their rays to earth inclining,
Beckoning us to heaven above,
Beckoning us to heaven above.
On that holy Christmas night
Through the darkness beamed a light
All the stars above were paling,
All their luster slowly failing,
As the Christmas star drew nigh,
As the Christmas star drew nigh.
Sages from the East afar,
When they saw this wondrous star,
Went to the find the King of nations,
And to offer their oblations
Unto Him as Lord and King,
Unto Him as Lord and King.
Him they found in Bethlehem,
Yet He wore no diadem;
They but saw a maiden lowly
With an Infant pure and holy,
Resting in her loving arms,
Resting in her loving arms.
Guided by the star they found
Him Whose praise the ages sound,
We too have a star to guide us
Which forever will provide us
With the light to find our Lord,
With the light to find our Lord.
As a star God’s holy Word
Leads us to our King and Lord;
Brightly from its sacred pages
Shall this light throughout the ages
Shine upon our path of life,
Shine upon our path of life.
N.F.S. Grundtvig 1810
Melody Church of Norway Hymnal No. 90, by Jacob Gerhard Meidell, 1840, https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/NonEnglish/deilig_er_den_himmel_bla.htm
About the author
Stephanie Dietrich is an ordained priest in the Lutheran Church of Norway who works as a professor in Theology at VID Specialized University in Oslo. She is a member of the Faith and Order Commission and the Lutheran–Orthodox Dialogue Commission.