By Steve Rice
I’m not going to lie; it was a little weird last Wednesday when about 25 of us gathered together to go sing Christmas carols around the neighborhood and at Homestead Hills. I’m not saying it wasn’t wonderful, or that I wouldn’t do it again, or any of that. I’m just saying it was a little weird, especially when you’re having to walk around discarded Christmas trees on the road while you’re singing “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
My satellite radio station that has been playing Christmas music since Labor Day has even changed back to whatever it was playing before.
Cars would slow down trying to figure out why in the world two dozen people are holding hymnals and singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas. You could feel the confusion mixed with the exhaust – don’t they know Christmas is over?
Now for us, we knew it was not. It was, in fact, only the 9th day of Christmas. There were three more days to go! But we are salmon swimming up the stream, my friends. We are the keepers of old knowledge that not many think is worth keeping.
Last Wednesday night, with wishes of Merry Christmas and Jesus Christ is born, we were literally walking down, if not a different road, we were walking down the road differently.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany and I’ve got to tell you, it’s one of my favorites. Maybe because it’s the anniversary of my baptism. 39 years ago I was baptized in Buford Street United Methodist Church in Gaffney, South Carolina – that wonderful little town made famous by House of Cards.
It’s also my favorite because of the depths of the mysteries we are celebrating. For a long time, this day – the Epiphany – was a far bigger celebration than the Nativity, than Christmas Day. On this day, several events were combined together to proclaim God’s manifestation in the world – which is what the word ‘epiphany’ means. We would celebrate the Nativity, the visit of the Magi, the Circumcision, the Presentation, and his Baptism, all on one day. So much theological power is coiled up in this feast. Now we remember the visit of the Magi, the wise men, on the Epiphany but this in no way reduces the spiritual and theological depth of the feast.
Try to not give in to the temptation to reduce this event as a cartoon, as a caricature. That’s a favorite trick of the devil, to convince us this is all a cartoon. He wants us to focus more on the novelty of the chalk and the fun of the wise men than to focus on the fact that the Light of the World draws all people to himself.
This Epiphany is the manifestation of God’s salvation to the Gentiles – to all the nations. This Epiphany is the proclamation that God loves all and calls all to adore him and thereby discover the peace that passes all understanding.
These men were from far off. Tradition has given us the names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and tradition has told us they were from Asia, Africa, and Europe – the three known continents. This was done to remind us these weren’t men from Jerusalem or Nazareth or even Rome. These men represent the nations of the world and all the people of this earth who are in search of the Great Truth which every human being intuitively knows exists.
Whatever that star was, and there are fascinating theological ideas on this, they followed it. The discerned a proclamation in the cosmos. Whatever their stature, whatever their position, whatever their rank, they knew there was someone far greater and they went searching for him. They searched for him, not as a rival, but as their king.
And when the star stopped, or maybe even more precise, the star went away – because what can compete with the Light of the World – these men, whoever they were and wherever they were from, worshipped him. They fell down and paid him homage. He was their Lord.
They brought him gifts, not for a baby, but for a king – gold, frankincense, and myrrh, fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 60 when the nations of the earth would bring gold and frankincense to the God of Israel. The God of Israel – the God of All – was lying in a manger. The Bread of Heaven was held in a feeding trough made for the animals.
This Epiphany reminds us that we were all created to adore God. Our life’s mission is to seek him with everything we have and when we finally acknowledge his Presence, we were made to worship him.
The thing is, this story isn’t so unfamiliar, which may be why we are tempted to make it into a cartoon. These Magi represent us. We will go far and wide to bring our own treasure chests and empty them out before the throne of something. The question is – who or what are we adoring? We will worship something. We will worship anything.
It is only Jesus Christ, who gives us life through our worship of him. Everything else, without exception, takes something away when we worship.
Whatever we elevate in the place of Almighty God, is our idol. Whatever we do or give in place of the adoration of Jesus Christ, is our worship. And it will never give in return.
After the Magi adored Jesus, they went home another way. St Matthew tells us they were warned in a dream about Herod’s plot to kill Jesus and so they avoided him by going a different route.
But I also think this tells us that when we truly fall down and worship Jesus Christ as our Lord, when we have that epiphany – we will travel down a different road. We are changed, altered, by the Presence of Jesus Christ. His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return will forever be in our thoughts, in our words, and embodied in our actions.
When we worship the Light of the World that returns life for adoration, we will go through life down a different road. Or at least we will travel down those roads, differently.
The Rev. Steve Rice is rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.