People in general believe that good news is for sharing. If you get a great new job, you tell your family and friends. If Apple really is giving away free iPads for answering three simple questions, you forward the email. And if there’s a way to find hope in difficult times — times like our own — it’s only fair to tell others where to find that hope.
Jesus said that no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl. Instead, you light a lamp and raise it up so everyone can see in the dark (Matthew 5:15). Which is precisely what God did at Jesus’ birth.
This Sunday is the feast of the Epiphany, which means “showing” or “manifestation.” God’s Son was not just born in Bethlehem, he was seen. Seen specifically by the Magi arrive their three gifts.
While it’s also known as “Three Kings’ Day,” the Magi weren’t kings nor were there necessarily three of them. Instead they were probably astrologers from Persia, men of great learning and status. They were religious men, though not believing the true religion of the Old Testament and the Jews.
As astrologers, they would have believes that the fate of every human, every people, every nation is written in the unchangeable appearance and movement of the stars. In direct contradiction to that belief, at the birth of Jesus, God caused the stars to make an announcement. Something happened in the sky that the ancient astrologers had never seen before. And they read the sign to mean that a king was born. Perhaps this king rather than being controlled by the stars, controls the stars.
It’s been suggested that the cosmic event that announced the king’s birth was that planets Jupiter and Saturn lining up in the constellation Pisces in 7 or 6 B.C. with spectacular effect. Everybody in the world looking up into the night sky could have seen the spectacle.
I suspect that most people either didn’t notice or, if they noticed, said “Huh. Would you look at that?” and got back to business. Among those who studied the stars, I suspect there was great excitement followed by a great deal of pointing, debate, and writing. No doubt the ancient equivalents of academic papers were presented at important conferences leading to awards, preferment, and advanced degrees.
But a few learned men, a few Magi saw the sign and had a different response. We know from Roman authors that people in scholarly circles of the ancient world believed that a great universal king would emerge from, of all places, Judea. This heavenly display, some believed, announced the birth of that great universal king.
You know, of course, that travel in the ancient world was arduous and the Magi didn’t just pack up the Suburban and head out onto the interstate. The journey — probably between 500 and 600 miles across the Arabian Desert — would have taken at least weeks of preparation. At about 15 miles per day, travel time would have been over a month and probably a great deal more with changing weather conditions and other delays.
Why did these Magi make the trip to see this new king while others chose to stay at home? In his new book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI writes that they must have been “people of inner unrest, people of hope, and people on the lookout for the true star of salvation.” That is, they were the ones who said, “This world is not the way it’s supposed to be. It can be otherwise. And there is someone who can take the world as it is and make it otherwise.”
My sense of hope has become more than a little threadbare lately. I feel as though we’re going over more than just a fiscal cliff. An ongoing culture of relativism and death, the death of the culture of marriage and family, the abridgement of religious freedom in the United States, wars and rumors of wars in a very, very dangerous world — something in us screams that this is not the way it’s supposed to be.
Epiphany is an annual invitation to revolutionary hope manifested in the unlikely package of a baby. In the Magi we all journey to find hope.
They are typically depicted as three — from the ancient point of view, a perfect, all-encompassing number. They are typically depicted as young, middle-aged, and old. This is hope no matter what our situation in life. They are typically depicted as one European, one Asian, and one African. This is hope for everyone on earth.
Epiphany presents us with a choice. We look the other way. We can notice, say, “Well look at that?” and get back to business. We can gorge ourselves on information about the hope. Or we can drop everything, do what ever it takes, and join the Magi in worship at the feet of Jesus, our sorry world’s great and glorious hope.