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We learn in life in bursts and sudden spurts. While we spend our childhood in school, progressively learning to read, write and be socialized. The deep things in life are actually learned in explosive moments of illumination and realization. Think of a baby: learning each day, but suddenly they find their thumb, rolling over, learning to walk. When it comes to faith, philosophy and metaphysical worldview growth – we learn and grow in the same way – suddenly, bit by bit, revelation by revelation.
The word Epiphany has several meanings: in our faith tradition it’s a Christian festival, observed on January 6, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi. It’s also known as the Twelfth-day of Christmas. An epiphany is also an appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity; a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience; and a literary work or section of a work presenting, usually symbolically, such a moment of revelation and insight.
The passage from Isaiah: the glory of Zion.
Addressed to the Israelites in their captivity in foreign Babylon, the words of what we call Isaiah 60 are challenging. In their defeat and nearly complete cultural cleansing, the Israelites are told that the wealth of the nations will come to them. They who have always seen themselves as an disadvantaged and unimportant, located at an auspicious spot geographically at the center of several trading crossroads, will be essential for all of the nations. Is God promising wealth, power and prestige for the Israelites, or for God to be known through their paradoxical story? This weak, seemingly negligent people-group is lifted up. They are like a light in the darkness. They become a center, a place of pilgrimage, a magnet, a living image – or icon – of the light, glory, passion and purpose of the Living God in the world. And yet the text begins and ends, is bookmarked, with the glory of God. So what message does their story convey? What type of God will it point to? How will that impact the world? How does it impact you?
The passage from Matthew: the story of the magi
Curiously in this passage the infant Jesus is the protagonist, the center of the text and yet he never says or does anything. The wise men, actually magi (who bring 3 gifts, but are never actually numbered in the text) were more like sages from Persia, than foreign kings, experts in astrology and dream interpretation. For as smart as they are presented, they seem naïve as they don’t have a clue about Herod’s self-serving and self-preserving intentions.
The Magi are the foreign voice, the searching presence seeking out God’s word in the world. Herod represents the established, imperial power; seeking to maintain control, preserve tradition, nurture the status quo at any cost. His rule is contrasted with that of Jesus with is a gentle guardianship, like a shepherd watching over the flock with compassion and wisdom. The magi come to worship the infant, fulfilling the promises of the texts in Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72:1-14. They represent all non-Jews, the diversity of the nations coming to recognize what God is doing and how God is present in the world. Their action anticipates that of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 as he sends his disciples out into all the earth.
Questions for wondering and exploring:
1. What troubles you and/or encourages you in these texts? Why? How?
2. Epiphany and all epiphanies are movements from absence to presence, from despair to hope, from dismay to well-being, from confusion to clarity, from darkness to illumination. How do you experience Jesus as God’s epiphany for you? For our world?
3. We live in a world were the majority of people are like the Magi – seeking wisdom, hungry for interpretation of the times, thirsty for a word from outside of our limited understanding. Many times this seeking is done in language that doesn’t seem kosher, or orthodox, in our faith lexicon and tradition. How do we respond to the magi in our midst today? How do we live, minister and relate with people that are drawn to the church like a magnet, not for the traditions or status quo of an institution, but for the mysterious way in which it has been a place and space for thousands of years for encounter with God? How is that calling to be a light to the nations at the center of our ministry and identity? How could it be more so? What role does creativity and healthy relationships play in that calling?