a biblical and personal reflection, based on Matthew 2.1-12, in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2017
Epiphany. From the Greek, meaning, “manifestation”, “revelation”, or “showing forth”. In Western Christianity, since the 5th century CE, a festival to celebrate the belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the anointed one sent by God, for all people.
Magi, sages schooled in the astrological arts, follow a star, arrive in Jerusalem from the East, inquire about the birth of a Bethlehem baby, a child born “king of the Jews”, meet with an apprehensive King Herod, threatened by the news of the birth of a rival, leave the royal palace, journey to the place where the child lay, kneel in homage, offer their gifts, and, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, depart by another way.
A lovely story. Equal parts historically probable and fictionally plausible.
Regarding its historicity, the messianic expectation of the coming of a divine or semi-divine heroic ruler was well known among many ancient peoples. Astrology was prevalent. Talk of the appearance of a star at the birth of a king would have surprised no one and perhaps would have been expected. A wise man or magus was an honored professional, a counselor welcomed by kings, whose tools of the trade were precious metals, incense, and aromatic oils. Herod, according to historians, reigned for a little more than thirty years and lived in a paranoiac fear of usurpers to the throne. On these counts, the story has a factual ring.
Contrarily, no one has identified what comet, supernova, or planetary phenomenon might have appeared as a “star at its rising.” Moreover, the story has the feel of an ex post facto literary molding of elements to point to a common occurrence, the birth of a baby, and, in light of the later developing story of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of that baby, to anoint that birth with cosmic significance.
Nevertheless, whether factual or mythological or both, I am riveted by one detail of the story. The magi, coming from afar, following a star, finding the one for whom they had searched, “left for their own country by another road.”
Practically, the magi, warned in a dream and intuiting Herod’s malevolent intentions, sought to avoid sharing their news of finding the child with the despotic Judean king.
Poetically and no less profoundly, the magi went home by another way because they had become different people. Guided by a star, they found true Light. They had an epiphany, a stellar, transformative “Aha!” moment. Renewed, they returned home, facing forward and, I imagine, always looking back to Bethlehem, remembering the revelation that had changed their lives.
More to come…
Illustration: Adoration of the Magi, Matthias Stom (or Stomer) (1600-1650)
 Note: Common Era (CE) and Before the Common Era (BCE), being less Christian-centric, thus more inclusive, are my substitutes for A.D. (Anno Domini, year of our Lord) and B.C. (Before Christ), respectively.
 Though scripture doesn’t indicate how many magi, saying simply, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem” (Matthew 2.1), given the gifts they bore of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2.11), tradition and legend have set the number at three.