Epiphany: “Return Another Way”
On January 6th the church keeps the feast of the Epiphany, although this year many churches (including St Helen) will keep the feast on 3rd January 2010. It is the coming of the wise men to pay homage to the infant Jesus. Indeed no nativity play is complete without three Kings coming to visit the baby Jesus, usually with tea towels and dressing gowns for authenticity although you may have read in the press that last year, parents ditched the traditional tea towels and dressing gowns for “designer” costumes!!!
The story of the three Wise Men, or Magi, is told in Matthew Chapter 2:1-12»». The story is well known. They see a star, telling of the birth of the King of the Jews. They follow the star, first to Jerusalem, where they seek the new born King at Herod’s palace, but are directed on to Bethlehem where the star stops to show them where Jesus is. They are overjoyed, worship Jesus and present Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Over the centuries, this basic narrative became enriched by several traditions. Tertullion first referred to them as kings in the second century and this became general in the sixth century, being linked to Psalm 72:10-11 which says,
The Kings of Tarshish and distant shores will bring tribute to him; the Kings of Sheba and Seba will present Him gifts. All Kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him.
While Matthew gives no number, Origen in the third century said there were three, probably because they had three gifts; and this too became general. By the sixth century, they had been given names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthaser. By the Middle Ages they had become venerated as Saints and their alleged relics were brought from Constantinople first to Milan and then to Cologne. A shrine to them can still be seen in the magnificent Cathedral of Cologne. The Magi adoring Christ has always been one of the most popular subjects for religious art,(indeed part of the East Window at St Helen shows the Epiphany) the earliest depiction being a second century fresco in the catacombs in Rome.
But Epiphany is more than just a picturesque story, these gifts have significance, Gold showing Christ as King, Frankincense showing Christ as Priest and Myrrh showing Christ as Sacrifice. Even more important is that they show that the birth of Christ is good news to Gentiles as well as Jews, that Christ has come to all people of every nation.
As we prepare to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, let us remember that the Magi, returned home another way (New English Bible). It has been suggested that “Another Way” may not simply be by a different route, but changed, transformed by their encounter and experience. My prayer for each of us, this Epiphany is that as we celebrate and engage afresh in the wonder of this story, we too may return “Another Way”.