Reflections on the Epiphany

magi stained glass

Note: I mentioned in my Word of the Year post that I wanted to observe the Liturgical Year to some extent this year. In honor of Epiphany this Sunday, I offer these brief reflections.

Ever since I was a little kid, I remember going to church on Heilige Drei Konige  (a.k.a.  Three Kings’ Day a.k.a. Epiphany). I always hated it, because (a) church at the Old Colony was incredibly boring, since I didn’t understand the German sermon; and (b) we had to miss a day of school if it fell on a weekday. As a kid, I loved school, so this was a travesty; moreover, it made me a weirdo, missing school to go to church when nobody else did except the other Mennonite kids. In high school and university, missing school meant I had to catch up on school work the next day. Boo.

(This year, it falls on a Sunday, meaning I heaved a big sigh of relief for nerdy Mennonite kids everywhere).

I never understood why the heck we celebrated that day. So three wise guys came and visited baby Jesus and gave him so weird (and very impractical) presents. That hardly seemed like a reason to miss school and go to church. Lots of cool things happened in Jesus’ days; we didn’t celebrate all of them. Why not celebrate Jesus Turns Water Into Wine Day, or Jesus Visits Zaccheus Day, or Jesus Curses the Fig Tree Day? (These aren’t real holidays, right? I’m new to this whole Liturgical Year thing…)

I never got the significance of Three Kings Day. That is, until I read about it in Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. According to the authors, this day is important because we celebrate the civil disobedience of the Magi. These early rebels defied the violent, earthly king (Herod) to honour a different kind of King entirely — a humble baby, born of a peasant girl, come to save the world by loving and dying.

If you think about it, these mysterious Gentiles from the East are an inspiring example to us. We’ve been called to be a peculiar people, members of a Kingdom not of this world. Though the world is ruled by fearsome kings, with the power to slaughter a whole village of innocent babies just to eliminate the threat of a competitor, we are called to follow a different kind of King. A meek and humble King. An all-powerful King who made himself vulnerable, who enters into our pain and suffering.

I find myself in confused awe: who were these guys, anyway? How did they have to confidence to defy such a king as Herod, when all they had to go by was a star in the sky and a dream? (And, honestly, how did they even muster enough zeal to make the trip in the first place?! That’s a long, uncomfortable trip by camel.) What in the world gave them such courage? Were they CRAZY? That Herod was INSANE, murdering his own relatives left and right. Like, seriously: who sees a star and think, “I bet if we follow that star, we’ll find the Lord of the Universe, and we won’t let anyone stop us, not even a ruthlessly violent king”?

This Epiphany, I’ll be re-reading the story, and I want to take some time to learn a bit more about these mysterious men. I want to spend some time reflecting on their mad courage. Because if I’m going to be crazy, I want to be crazy like the Magi.

(But don’t worry. I won’t be celebrating with acts of civil disobedience merely for the sake of civil disobedience. But I can’t promise I’ll go out of my way to avoid it, either…).

Have you ever celebrating the Epiphany? What have you done?

Photo credit: therevsteve

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  1. Great post! Super interesting.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I am Eastern Orthodox Christian, so we call Epiphany Theophany, and it covers more than the visit of the Magi. Actually, Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist is more the focus than the visit by the Magi. It’s celebrated by the “blessing of the waters” and house blessings and it’s a feast day.

    Before we converted from Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy, I thought the big point of Epiphany was that the gifts of the Magi foreshadowed Easter. That God’s plan for Christ, even when he was a little baby, was for Him to die on the cross for our sins, and that He is the King of Kings. I never got the civil disobedience angle. Being a Christian was a crime for centuries, and since saints and martyrs are venerated and remembered as part of Eastern Orthodox worship, I’m reminded regularly that following Christ resulted in horrible deaths for many holy men and women. Also, Orthodox Christians are regularly martyred and oppressed throughout the Middle East. For some reason, this seems to be forgotten or ignored by the Western churches.

    We also celebrate “Jesus Visits Zaccheus” day, it’s called Zaccheus Sunday, and it’s the 11th Sunday before Pascha (Greek for Passover, what Orthodox Christians call Easter). Other celebrated bible passages include Publican & the Pharisee, Prodigal Son, Last Judgement, the raising of Lazarus, Great and Holy Monday (Monday before Pascha – Joseph being sold into slavery and the withering of the fig tree), Great and Holy Tuesday (Ten Virgins), Great and Holy Wednesday (Annointing by Mary & Martha), the Holy Myrrhbearers, Samaritan Woman, and Blind Man. These are just holy days in the Paschal (Easter) cycle of worship. There are others throughout the year too.

  3. If your reading list isn’t long enough, and you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend adding the classic novel Ben-Hur to it. I won’t try to describe it too much for fear of not doing it justice, but I’ll just say that the portrayal of the wise men was fantastic and has stuck with me ever since I read it.

  4. You had me at civil disobedience. But I’m glad I read further. I can see the next new buzzword: Magi Crazy. Or, crazy like Magi. I think I like Epiphany. I never celebrated it, and thought of the Magi as naive – I mean, did they really think that asking a king (Herod) about the whereabouts of a new king could possibly end well? Also, it’s exciting to hear that some Christians celebrate Samaritan Woman holy day – it’s one of my favourite encounters described in the NT.

  5. I was signed up to lead the congregational prayers at church this Sunday, and only remembered the night before it would be Epiphany. I loved thinking about the fact that the first two groups of people chosen to come and worship Jesus were outsiders – first the shepherds, then the Magi. It reminded me of how upside down – how peculiar!- the Kingdom of God truly is, and how much we’ve managed to tame it.
    I love this aspect you shared, of the Magi coming as an act of civil disobedience. Seen these ways, the story is so much more inspiring and exciting!

    Also, here in Lux (and neighbouring countries) we get to eat Le gâteau des Rois, which is super yummy!
    fiona lynne recently posted..on my one word for 2013My Profile

  6. “Gold I give to honor the king.
    Incense to the priest I bring.
    Myrrh for the time of burying.”

    Yay Epiphany! In some places, you exchange gifts on Epiphany and Christmas Day is a pure holy day. Dad always tried to get us to agree to wait until Epiphany to get our presents, but that never caught on somehow. ;-)

    We continue to celebrate Christmas through Epiphany, and usually discuss how the gifts speak to Jesus’ different roles–king, priest, and sacrifice–but I never thought about the civil disobedience angle. Thanks for sharing!

    Next Sunday is Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. Some of the events get their own days–there’s also a Temptation of Our Lord Sunday, for instance–but not all of them.

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