It begins with the Magi following a star to a baby born king. Intelligent and dedicated, they head to Jerusalem – the place you would expect to find a child king. But the baby wasn’t there, so they move on to the dreary little town of Bethlehem. In a humble home, they find a toddler. They are filled with joy, making the months long journey a small price to pay for the experience. A gift giving and dream later, they take an alternate route home, better for their journey.
Some interesting things about their story…
The Magi have been folded into the Christmas story, with Sunday school pageants and Christmas cards showing them trekking to the manger. But Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were in a house, not a barn; Jesus wasn’t a newborn – most likely, he was around two.
The gospel never mentions how many Magi made the trip, but tradition landed on three. Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior are names given to the Magi, but those aren’t part of the original account, either.
The Magi weren’t Jewish when they set out to follow the star, and they didn’t convert. They were most likely Zoroastrian scholars, and their country of origin may have been Persia – another thing not made clear in the gospel.
How is it that our picture of the Magi has diverged from their original story? How is it that this version of the story is so prevalent and powerful that we read back into the gospel these elements?
Epiphany is a day, true, but it’s also a season that begins as Christmas ends and ends as Lent begins. It is an opportunity to remember that God’s chosen arrival into our messy human world didn’t fit into an expected time, place, or social station. If we aren’t careful, we can easily gloss over the difficulties that a journey across desert terrain entailed; we can omit that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled to Egypt for survival – political refugees. We can overlook that a response to God’s arrival in our world may be fear and violence rather than awe and joy.
I love this card. It’s a beautiful depiction of the Magi arriving to worship Jesus. It’s also a good reminder that if I’m not careful, I just might mistake profound joy and divine revelation for pleasant prettiness and fleeting happiness. Epiphany is a season because it may take longer than a day for me to see that the incarnation cannot and should not be reduced to a Hallmark moment.