Today, Christians celebrate the great feast of Epiphany — the celebration of God’s light shining into the world in the life of Jesus. In Western practice, the feast commemorates the visitation of the Magi — the Greek word generally referred to Zoroastrian priests versed in astrology — to the child Jesus.
I can’t help but notice this year how this story engages with all three of the major themes I’ve been working through of late here: the seasons of the church calendar, Knowing God, and, though the story’s association with astrology and dreams, Magical Thinking. It’s the second of these themes that has struck me most today — and indeed what better day to get back to thinking about what it means to know God than this feast of divine revelation.
There is something truly beautiful about the story in relationship to knowing God: just as the Incarnation would impact lives far beyond the Jewish community, so too does God prepare hearts and minds beyond the limits of those who know the Torah and Prophets. God’s work in the world is not parochial; God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” and is more than happy to use the existing beliefs of those who seek truth as a means of revelation.
And yet, there is also a warning for us in this story: A genuine encounter with God will always challenge our expectations, assumptions, and beliefs about ourselves and the world.
My favorite Eastern nativity hymn describes the challenge well :
Your nativity, O Christ our God
Has shone on the world the Light of Wisdom
For by it those who adored the stars
Were taught by the star to adore You, The Sun of Righteousness
And to know You, The Dayspring from on High.
O Lord, Glory to You!
As related in Matthew 2, the Magi had seen a star rising in the sky that led them to believe a royal infant had been born in Judea. And so they decided to follow this sign in the heavens to see what there was to see and to pay their proper respects.
What they found was, if nothing else, unexpected. Assuming, as one would, that the royal baby would be found in the capital, they first went to Jerusalem. But, awkwardly, the child was not in the palace. After consulting with the religious authorities, they found him in the small, backwater town of Bethlehem. And, whether they knew it or not, in finding him, they encountered God.
Despite the simplicity of the biblical story (the text simply says they “were filled with joy” and offered him gifts and veneration — which could easily have been said of people visiting any newborn!), the Christian tradition has always maintained that the Magi did truly meet and experience God in meeting the infant Jesus.
But as much as they “were filled with joy,” the irony of their situation must not have been lost on them. Their belief in meeting God in astrology and dreams led them to meet God in an altogether different way: in an infant in a land far from home; their veneration of the stars led them to venerate the one whom foreign prophets called the Morning Star and Sun of Righteousness. What might this have meant for them after the fact?
T.S. Eliot famously imagined that this experience left the Magi feeling a off-kilter and even a little cynical:
“Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…” (“Journey of the Magi,” 1927)
While Eliot’s speculation might be a bit too pessimistic, he captures the truth that encountering God is always a challenge. It always confronts our beliefs and confounds our expectations. To meet God requires humility.
An epiphany is an act of repentance: having our mind and perceptions opened up to new realities, having our hearts exposed to Truth.
And this is the question that struck me today: If we want to know God, are we prepared to be confronted by what we’ll find? Will we have the courage to have our minds and hearts opened? Will we have the humility say we were wrong, that there is more to the Truth than we had expected?
The promise is, of course, that if the answer is ‘yes’ — if we are able to rise to the occasion and be transformed by the experience of knowing God — it will be worth it. The new reality is so much vaster, all-encompassing, so much more beautiful and loving than the old.
But this promise takes a lot of trust to hold on to, especially when our big ideas, theories, and theological paradigms come crashing down around us.
We don’t know what happens with the Magi after they leave Judea. Did the sense of joy they experienced upon meeting God in the infant Jesus pervade the rest of their lives? Or, as Eliot speculates, did disillusionment and bitterness seep in as the years went by?
The challenge for all of us who truly seek to know God is be willing to accept what we find.
The promise is that the Truth is such that we’ll never want to go back to what we ‘knew’ before.