Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue to read from Isaiah where God promises light out of darkness. All will gather in Jerusalem and will bring gold and incense. Matthew’s Gospel describes how “some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east” asking where to find “the infant king of the Jews.” When Herod heard of this he asked his advisors where the Christ was to be born. When he heard that that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem he told the wise men to go to Bethlehem, and then return and tell Herod what they saw. He said he wanted to do homage to this child. The wise men found Jesus and did him homage but did not return to Herod because they were warned against it. They went home by a different route.
There are times when I have great sympathy for the scholars who choose the readings, particularly for holidays. Many of our largest celebrations as Christians have barely a mention in Scripture. I’m convinced that our first reading from Isaiah comes only because of the phrase “everyone in Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense and singing the praises of the Lord.”
We know about Ephiphany because of the events in today’s Gospel but in our history it has taken on a much more important role. Our gift giving at Christmas finds its roots in this reading and this feast. Amazon, you’re welcome.
Our celebration of Christmas and the Christmas season marks a fascinating journey in our history. For the first few hundred years after Jesus, Christmas took a backseat to Easter and it was a good 300 years before Christmas was celebrated on December 25th,, coinciding with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. In the centuries after that Northern European pagans gave us Christmas trees and mistletoe.
Around the same time we landed on December 25th we learned about St. Nicholas, a bishop in which is now part of Turkey. Poor fathers of the time feared that if they were not able to provide a dowry for their daughters they would never get married. St. Nicholas walked the streets at night tossing coins into open windows where they would often land in shoes left near the fireplace. His generosity allowed us to look to Ephiphany and it led us to begin to give gifts to each other. And despite efforts of the American Puritans in the 1600s, we continue to this day. About two hundred years ago the character of St. Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus.
And so both Christmas and Epiphany, finding their origin in an amalgam of Scripture, Roman holidays, Northern European paganism.
Please understand I’m not trying to challenge anyone’s faith or take away from the purity of some of our holiest days. Instead I wish to talk about how important Epiphany is to us today.
For as long as I can remember, people have bemoaned how commercial the holidays have become. Children of my generation remember waiting each year for A Charlie Brown Christmas where Charlie Brown sought the real meaning of Christmas. But when he spoke to Lucy about his fear that Christmas had become too commercialized, she told him that “we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know. “
Apologies to Lucy, but I disagree. Epiphany calls us to more and we have accepted it. The importance of this feast in our lives is proven two ways. First, Epiphany has spawned numerous jokes in our lives. My favorite? We know that the wise men were not wise women because they wouldn’t have brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They would have brought diapers, formula, and wipes.
Second, we have taken on the role of the wise men and give gifts to those who we see as divine. When we celebrate this season by giving a gift to someone, we recreate Epiphany. We say to the person that we recognize the divinity in that person. And when we accept a gift from another we recognize that this person sees the divinity in us.
I’ll grant that this season causes us some stress, but I don’t think this stress is entirely bad. We’re told that we have to find the perfect gift and we fear that if the shelves are bare when we arrive we’re failures. And truth be told, I found a book for my wife that I thought she would treasure, but learned that it was backordered long into January.
But limited supply takes nothing away from the feelings we have from the person we gift. Sometimes we gift the people we love: our parents, our spouse, our children, our other relatives. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I like the fact that our generosity goes beyond this. I like the fact that we also give gifts to our neighbors, our friends, and the people who serve us. Every year I receive an envelope from the person who delivers my morning newspaper. I almost never interact with this person, but I give a gift because I value the fact that this person drives to my home every morning before dawn to ensure that I know what is happening in the world.
When the wise men found the newborn redeemer they paid homage to an infant who likely would never make their lives better. We don’t know what happened to them and they never appeared again in Scripture. But we revere them because they paid homage to someone who we know changed the course of human history. Their generosity holds a place in our heart because they taught us how to be generous to those around us.
Their generosity taught us that finding the Christ in each other advances human history and makes us better people. Let us gift each other not only out of gratitude to each other, but also to bring us closer to the place the wise men wanted us to be.