Epiphany: The Visit of the Magi
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”
Our household has been celebrating the twelve days of Christmas that began on Christmas Day and ended last night on Epiphany Eve—making today Epiphany. In the Western church this day commemorates the visit of the Magi (some celebrate it as the day Jesus was baptized or the wedding feast in Cana) and usually involved some kind of feast. So my oldest daughter Avery made sourdough pancakes. Delicious. I’m liking Epiphany already.
Since our family started celebrating the twelve days of Christmas and Epiphany several years ago, I started to learn a lot more about all things that related to Christmas and in particular about the visit of the Magi. Allow me to comment on some aspects of the story that are worth considering.
1. Were there three Magi? The Bible doesn’t say how many but perhaps the fact that three gifts were given has led to the idea that three Magi were present. The popular 19th century Christmas Carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”, have further perpetuated the assumption that there were three Magi present when other traditions have two, four or even twelve.
2. Were they kings? Again, the song makes assumptions that aren’t clear from the Biblical story. Magi from the Greek means magicians, astrologers or wise men. These would have been men serving in the court of a king using their knowledge and powers to advise the king in all matters relating to his rule. Certainly these magi could have had some royal connection but it isn’t clear at all that they themselves were “kings”.
3. Where are they from? Once again the song doesn’t help as the Bible only says that the Magi are “from the east”. Most people they travelled from Babylon or Persia, not as far east as Asia.
There are many other matters related to their visit that we could discuss (How old was Jesus when they found him? What kind of star did they see that led them to Jesus? Why did they bring those specific gifts? Were they followers of Yahweh or pagans?), but let me focus on just one point today.
Most scholars believe the Magi were non-Jews, or Gentiles. It could be very likely that by the time the Magi visit Jesus—even if he were perhaps as old as two years as some believe—they are the first Gentiles to see Jesus. Isaiah 49:6 rightly foretold the nature of the Messiah with God saying, "I will make you a light to the Gentiles, and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Some traditions celebrate the idea that the Magi returned to their homes in the east and spread the good news that Jesus Christ was the Savior of the world. Though we don’t know if that is true, we do know that the arrival of Jesus meant salvation would be revealed not only to the faithful Jews awaiting the Messiah but for the whole world in need of this Messiah who saves.
I know the manifestation of the Lord to the Magi—the Epiphany—is far more important than eating delicious pancakes, but it’s been a fun way to continue to celebrate the fact that Christ has entered our world to reveal his goodness to all who seek him. May we seek him in 2021 above all other persons or things.
Have a blessed Epiphany Day!
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Do you celebrate Epiphany? Can you remember when God revealed himself to you in a way that led you to worship him, grow closer to him or realize that he was real?
We thank you, Lord, for the gift of revealing yourself to all nations, and ask that you continue to be revealed in and through my little life. May today be a day of feasting because of your abundant love and a day of sharing the good news that your love is available to a world in need. Thank you for coming to us and for never leaving us alone. We need you to carry us through this season and ask that you continue to show us the way forward in faithfulness to you. Amen.