Epiphany is Christmas 2.0. Its conspicuous place following the nativity narrative in Matthew’s Gospel presents it as the “other Christmas,” the “Christmas of the Gentiles.” At the first Christmas we find a swaddled baby in a manger visited by shepherds from the fields summoned by angels. In the “other Christmas,” we find a toddler at His mother’s feet in a house visited by Magi, Wise Men from the East guided by a star. The first Christmas was announced to Israel, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham; the second Christmas was for the world, the nations, the Gentiles, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Adam.
“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising,” God said (Isaiah 60:3).
The Greek word epiphany means “appearing,” and in ancient times it was used usually about the appearing of a god or a great king. Some ancient kings thought they were gods. To underscore his divine prowess, Antiochus IV, an ancient Syrian king, took the name Epiphanes after he defeated the Egyptians. But the Maccabean Revolt in Jerusalem exposed his all-too-human vulnerabilities and mortality.
The Magi had come from the east to Jerusalem guided by a star. They were probably Persian court astrologers, stargazers, who looked to the stars for signs, portents and information. The Magi saw what appeared to be a star announcing the birth of a mighty king. While the shepherds of Bethlehem heard the birth announcement from an angel and a heavenly choir, the Persians were given the birth announcement in their own language, so to speak, and in this way anticipate Pentecost and the reversal of Babel’s alienation.
The great reversal
There’s an interesting reversal here. Centuries before, the Judeans had gone into exile in the East, into Babylon. And now the East comes to Judah — stargazers seeking the infant king whose birth star they had seen. They go to Herod’s Jerusalem palace — obviously the right place to inquire about a royal birth in Judah. Herod was the king so the star probably signaled the birth of his son, right?
Wrong. The Wise Men encountered man’s king; the star pointed to God’s King. The kings of men live in palaces, in capital cities, in grandeur. God’s King lives in a humble house, in an unremarkable village, in poverty and humility. Man’s king believes he is a god. God’s King becomes man. Man’s king exercises his power to control those under him. God’s King exercises His power in weakness to save those in His kingdom, a kingdom made up of believing hearts.
In the second Christmas — the Christmas of the Gentiles — we are reminded of God’s not-our-thoughts, not-our-ways hidden way. His is not the way of power and might, not the way of politics and palaces, but the way of poverty, meekness, lowliness and strength exercised in weakness; the way where throne and cross merge into one.
The star brought the Magi to Jerusalem and Herod’s court, but it was the prophetic Scriptures that got them to Bethlehem. “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2). Herod’s councilors had to look that one up. Herod gathered all the priests and religious scholars and Torah lawyers together and asked them where the King was to be born. And they unrolled the scroll of the Book of the Twelve (Shorter) Prophets to find the answer. And there it was in the prophet Micah: In little Bethlehem, regarded as the “least of all the rulers of Judah” (see Micah 5:2).
Not our ways
Bethlehem. The name means “house of bread.” It was King David’s birthplace and mother Rachel’s burial place. A little afterthought-of-a-town outside of Jerusalem where the real power was. But again, God chooses the lowly and the meek to shame the powerful and the wise; His ways are not our ways nor His thoughts our thoughts; His ways and thoughts subvert man’s ways with an undertow that drags the high and mighty from their thrones and humbles the proud in their conceit. “O little town of Bethlehem.” O little House of Bread. Bethlehem, Judah’s breadbox where the living Bread from heaven came to be born of His Virgin Mother.
So, off the Magi go to Bethlehem, urged on by Herod who wants to kill this threat to his throne, and the star appears again in the sky — a heavenly GPS — giving them great joy because how else would they know where to go? And it guided them to the very house where the Child was. No more manger-crib for this little One; now He is staying with relatives (evidently) in a house. These Persians come up the drive and ring the doorbell — and you can just imagine the amazed look on Mary’s face when she sees all their camels parked on the front lawn, even though Isaiah had spoken of it centuries before: “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).
Worship and offering
Even more unusual, these strangers from the east immediately bow down with their foreheads pressed against the ground as soon as they see the Child. And they come with gifts. Gold and frankincense and myrrh. They are costly gifts; the finest things they had, and they offer them to this humble little Child; and they worship Him as God, for God He is.
Ancient kings thought they were gods. But this little King isGod in the flesh, the eternal Son, the Savior, the Son of David. What the Wise Men saw was a little Child, perhaps a year or so old, playing at His Virgin Mother’s feet. But they believed the prophetic Word and the sign of the star, and through the eyes of faith they saw and worshiped the King of kings and offered Him their gifts.
So, the outsiders are now the insiders. Those who stood on the outside of Israel, are now in the presence of Israel’s eternal and greatest King, the promised Son of David. This is that great mystery of which the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians, how the Gentiles are now fellow heirs with Israel of the promise of salvation in Christ. The first Christmas was for the Jews, the circumcised, the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But this “other” Christmas is for the Gentiles, those who were once not God’s people, but who now, by the grace of God in Christ have become the people of God. Epiphany is Christmas for you and all who are afar off.
Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford