Reflections on Epiphany 2021

Coming of the Magi
James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We have now entered the season of the church year called Epiphany. The word “Epiphany” has roots in a Greek word meaning ”to shine forth.” While we celebrate the birth of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah in the Christmas season, Epiphany celebrates the revelation or shining forth of the Messiah as the light of the world, a light to all nations.

I know folks who celebrate January 6 (12 days after Christmas) as the Day of Epiphany. My Hispanic friends usually call it “Three Kings Day” or simply “Day of the Kings.” Its Biblical text is Matthew 2, the story of the Magi, or “Wise Men” who followed the light of a star to find and worship the “King of the Jews.” In the first few centuries of Christian history, this story was embellished on the basis of prophetic passages from the Old Testament which talk about the Messiah of Israel receiving the honor and worship of all nations whose kings come bearing expensive gifts. (Isaiah 60:6; Psalm 72:10-11)

While the identity and number of the Wise Men is still up for debate, it is clear that Matthew’s Gospel portrays them as the first worshippers of Jesus, the Messiah. Matthew, who is thought to write for a Jewish audience, is nevertheless making the important point right from the beginning that Jesus is not just the Anointed King of Israel (which is what “Messiah” means) but the King of all nations, Savior of even the “Gentiles.” These foreign, indeed pagan, astrologers, guided by a star, are an amazing first glimpse of Jesus’ shining forth as the real ruler over all peoples for all time.

It is significant that the gifts brought by the Wise Men include not only the gold due to a king but also incense associated with temple worship. Even more striking is the myrrh associated with the anointing of a dead body. This is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death as a suffering servant on the cross. Thus, Epiphany is a symbol and celebration of the “King of the Jews” who shines forth (is revealed) as the Ruler of all nations, the true Son of the one true God, but also is the Suffering Servant for all peoples as prophesied in Isaiah.

Right from the beginning, this revelation shines its light not just to glorify the Messiah King, but also to contrast that glory and bring to light the sinful human condition that produces this suffering. What is revealed is the ultimately evil nature of rebellious human kingdoms which seek to rule the world. In their refusal to recognize the “King of Kings” the powers are made known as evil, using their power over other people and the rest of creation for their own selfish purposes. Instead of seeking the good of all their people, they seek the death of those who would get in the way of their kingdoms. Thus, Epiphany is also remembered as the occasion in which King Herod was so threatened by the thought of a baby who would take his throne from him that he ordered the deaths of all male babies two years old and under around Bethlehem.

Over a year ago, some Christians were developing a play on words for the year “Twenty-twenty” to indicate that the year would bring a clarity of vision in the same way that a pair of glasses or contacts can restore 20/20 vision to human eyes. I believe that the year 2020 was, indeed, an Epiphany year; it did shine forth the true nature of the powers of this world, albeit only as long as we are willing to take off our blinders to see it.

Nowhere is that truer than in the United States of America.

  • A global pandemic reveals that many Americans are so focused on personal freedom that will ignore simple guidelines for the health of the larger public.  
  • A series of deaths in non-white communities has revealed new depths of a system of racism that has existed in our land for over 400 years.
  • A national government has revealed the cruel steps that we as a country are willing to take to keep poor people from other countries from crossing “our” borders, taking “our” jobs and benefitting from “our” privileges.

By the end of the year, we complain that we can’t celebrate Christmas as we are accustomed, with unfettered travel to large gatherings. We look away as non-whites die at the hands (or feet) of those who are supposed to protect them. We ignore the deaths from a tiny virus that now daily exceed the number of people who died on September 11, 2001. Then, as the Christmas season ends, we come to Epiphany 2021 which opens our eyes to an America where the racism and sexism and fearmongering lead to an open rebellion at the very thought that an incoming government may be a little less racist and sexist and xenophobic.

January 6, 2021, the Day of Epiphany, was a true exposure of the selfishness, the hunger for power, and the impulse to violence that is in all of us when things don’t turn out as we think they should. This applies across the political spectrum. It revealed that what some people call our “hallowed” buildings and institutions are not so holy after all. They are the scenes of selfish power, of corruption, and evil, perpetrated by both those who have power and those who want power.

The real Epiphany, the revelation of the true Messiah King, is the revelation of the Suffering Servant, the one who loves all people in all nations so much that he was ready to give rather than grab, to suffer instead of strike back, to die at the hand of his enemies instead of killing them. It is in the light of Jesus, the Messiah, that we see the powers of the world for what they are. They are the pathetic attempts of a self-serving people to maintain privileges far beyond what most people in the world enjoy.

If people who call themselves Christians keep identifying with these worldly powers, we will never be the light to all nations that Jesus came to reveal and to call us to be. We will simply be part of the sinful human problem rather than pointing to God’s great salvation for all. We cannot grab for ourselves and reach out to give to others at the same time.

Psalm 72 is the traditional psalm of Epiphany. It describes God and the Messiah of God. It starts out, 1 Give the king your justice, O God, /and your righteousness to a king’s son. 2 May he judge your people with righteousness, /and your poor with justice. And then, starting in verse 10, we have the reference to the “Three Kings.” 10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, / may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. 11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. / 12 For he delivers the needy when they call, / the poor and those who have no helper. / 13 He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. / 14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.

How will the light shine on us in this season of Epiphany 2021? What will it reveal? With whom will we identify as the worldly powers destroy each other and many human lives along with their warfare? May the Day of Epiphany shine its light on us to remind us to serve the one who gave his life for the whole world.

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