Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Magi -- Filonov (1914)

The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is one of those relatively rare days in the Christian year when the Bible readings, including the Gospel, are always the same. The reason is very simple. Although this has long been a major feast of the Church -- and of special importance in the Eastern Orthodox tradition --  only Matthew makes any mention of the strange event on which it is based.  Tradition has filled out Matthew's account of the arrival at the stable of strangers from some far off  place, notably by holding that there were three travellers, identifying them as 'kings', and even giving them names. The Bible does not provide any basis for this. In some modern translations the description 'wise men' is rendered 'astrologers', and in fact 'magicians' may be the most accurate-- which reduces their status considerably for a modern audience.
So why has this brief and mysterious episode attracted so much attention for so long? The answer lies in the theological significance that has been found in it. First, the fact that the travellers seek out Herod, but then fail to report back to him, gives an early sign of the 'political' context in which Jesus was born -- the actual Messiah ultimately proves quite at odds with what people hoped for or (in the case of Herod) feared. Secondly, the gifts that the wise men leave in the stable all have symbolic meaning; gold and frankincense are traditional gifts for a king, but myrrh also presages death. Thirdly, these men are Gentiles, foreigners. This is the most important aspect. Although the story of the birth, ministry, suffering and death of Jesus must remain firmly rooted in the Jewish theology of a long expected Messiah if it is to be understood properly, it has significance far beyond the confines of Jewish life and culture. The Gospel is a Gospel for Jew and Gentile alike. This is St Paul's great insight, an insight that leads him, at intense personal cost, to take on the enormous task of proclaiming a Jewish Gospel to a Gentile world. It is this special call that he explicitly acknowledges, appropriately, in the Epistle for Epiphany.
'Epiphanic moments' are those times when, quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance strikes us unexpectedly. At the Feast of the Epiphany we commemorate and celebrate the moment at which the universal importance of the Jewish religion is, for the first time, revealed to the whole world. It is the moment, we might say, when the birth of the historical Jesus is revealed to be the incarnation of the eternal Christ.

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