Today, as we celebrate the season of Epiphany, Hannah Coyne of Saint Peter’s Church unpacks its rich meaning—and calls us to the promised Savior who is for all people.
The Epiphanies of my youth were full of bongos and empanadas. For me, January 6th was not “Epiphany” but the Festival de los Tres Reyes – the Feast of the Three Kings. At the inner-city cathedral in western Massachusetts where I was raised, several of my friends were Spanish speakers who were part of our Hispanic congregation. On January 6th, they hosted a huge feast for our church filled with guitars and drums, dancing, costumed kings bearing gifts for the children, and best of all, the best meat pie empanadas you’ve ever tasted in your life. To our joy and delight, there was a seemingly never-ending supply of piping hot empanadas flowing from the fryer. Epiphany was thus spent in a language and culture very different from my own middle-class, white suburban context.
Given Epiphany’s significance, this feels very appropriate in retrospect. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God’s glory in Christ for all people. Coming from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “appearance,” Epiphany is associated with the arrival of the Magi who travel from the East to worship the Christ child. Guided by a bright star, Christ’s arrival is made known to these Gentiles—non-Jewish wise men—who have sought him out to worship him. This story fulfills Isaiah’s vision of Israel being the recipient of God’s glory and light to which the nations will stream. During Epiphany, we celebrate the appearance of the Morning Star, Jesus. Just as the light of the star guided the Magi to Jesus, the Church is called to be the light of the world as we make Christ manifest, or apparent, in our midst.
Only Matthew’s gospel, with its target Jewish audience, tells the story of the wise men. Matthew establishes early in his account that Yahweh is indeed for Israel—and through Israel, for people of all nations. I am struck by the words that the Gentile wise men said to King Herod upon their arrival in Jerusalem: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2). To put it mildly, Herod and “all Jerusalem with him” was “disturbed” (Matt. 2:3) at this announcement of a rival king. The Magi are not reported to have bowed at King Herod’s feet. These Gentiles seem to care very little about the power and honor ascribed to Herod. Instead they “bowed down and worshiped” the toddler Jesus.
The whole story is imbued with celestial apparitions and divine guidance. God leads these Gentiles from another country and culture to Jesus by the light of a star. God then intervenes through a dream by telling these Gentiles to flee from Herod by sending them home via a detour. It sounds like another story we know… one of God’s children being led by a light (a pillar of fire) at night and their leaders receiving God’s guidance by dreams and visions. It is a story that Matthew’s Jewish audience knew very well, except this time the Gentiles are the ones being led.
The wise men are often called ‘kings’ and depicted riding camels. Why is this? A clue might be found embedded in Israel’s story, in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah writes that one day, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD” (Is. 60:3,6).
Matthew uses this prophetic imagery to affirm that indeed, Israel’s light and glory has arrived—a promised Savior who is for all people, even Gentile wise men. He calls Israel to see the light—to have an epiphany. He asks the Jews to consider what it would mean to bow down, worship Jesus, and present him with their treasures like the Gentile wise men did. He nudges them to acknowledge this other King and this other Kingdom. It is not a path for the risk-averse. King Herod felt threatened by the worship of the Magi—so threatened that he had all the male toddlers and infants in Bethlehem killed in an attempt to eliminate Jesus.
In the season of Epiphany, the Church is called to be the light of the world as we make Christ manifest in our lives and communities. We are called to consider the ramifications of this manifestation. It may involve risk. It certainly did for the wise men and for the families of the children who were slaughtered as a result of Herod’s wrath. It may involve eating different foods as you share the good news with people who are different from you. It certainly did for me and for the apostle Peter, who had to get used to the fact that in God’s Kingdom, it was okay to eat bacon. However it happens, it will definitely involve living into a Kingdom that is not of your own making, and that will result in many little epiphanies along the way.
I love the way that poet W.H. Auden depicts this new Kingdom in his poem “For the Time Being”:
“He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.”
Here’s to an Epiphany full of unique adventures, great cities, and, like the wise men, the “overjoyed” (Matt. 2:10) feeling of discovering our King.
Collect for the Feast of the Epiphany:
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Hannah Coyne is native of western Massachusetts and obtained her Master’s in Pastoral Theology from Regent College in Vancouver. She is the Pastoral Associate at Saint Peter’s Church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Contact Hannah.