In the first chapter of Matthew, we read the story of how the angel appeared to Joseph and told him to stay with Mary. In Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, there are no shepherds and no angels singing in the sky. In this version of the story, the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream prior to Jesus’ birth is followed directly by the wise ones arriving to worship in Matthew 2. There’s some time missing in this story. It is likely that the wise ones did not appear until at least two years after Jesus’ birth. Jesus is no longer a baby. He is a toddler by the time this story occurs.
We don’t know a lot about the wise ones. Because there are three gifts, we assume there are three wise ones, but we aren’t told that. In other places, the word we have as kings or wise men is translated as magi which means magician—anyone who could interpret dreams or the stars. But in the Greek language of the time, it meant something specific: Zoroastrian priests. The Zoroastrian priests may have been men or women, and they had a full breadth of knowledge including: “philosophy, history, geography, plants, medicine and the heavens.” Within their community, they were known as “physicians and problem solvers,” hence wise ones.
Zoroastrianism was founded in Persia about 3500 years ago. Followers of this faith believe in one God who created everything. It has a core value of “Good Words, Good Thoughts and Good Deeds.” Within this faith, fire represents God’s light or wisdom. It seems an appropriate story for the beginning of Epiphany.
Epiphany is a Christian season which means the coming of light. As Christians, we often speak of Jesus as the light of the world. As Christianity was spreading, there were many cultures celebrating the winter solstice. They would light fires and pray for the sun’s return. Christian missionaries became very good at assimilating festivals from other faiths into Christianity. The missionaries told people that the son (Jesus) who is the light of the world would return. It’s why we started having Christmas trees with candles—candles representing Jesus’ light in the world.
Light is important across many faiths and cultures. Isaiah 60 from the Hebrew scripture refers to light that will come into the world. The Zoroastrian priests from Persia saw the comet flash across the sky and knew that the light signified something important.
The comet would foreshadow political change. And it does. As the priests visit Herod, they set in motion violent events. Herod knows that the comet signifies a change in politics. He knows that his position is tenuous, and he wants to do everything he can to hold onto his position, so he orders the deah of all children under two.
Jesus and his family were lucky enough to be warned by God, or maybe they just understood the politics of what was to come. What about all the families with children that didn’t have the ability to flee to another country? I imagine the horror of those days as people waited in fear for violence to occur and yet are helpless to prevent it.
This story makes me think about the millions of refugees around the world right now who are looking for places of safety. People who are fleeing violence just like Jesus and his family. We watch this happen from the relative safety of our homes and community but without having a sense of how to end the conflicts so that people can return home. Jesus and his family fled to Egypt and stayed there until Herod died. They thought it would be safe to go home. They started travelling and realized that Herod’s son was now King, so they went to Nazareth rather than home. It still wasn’t safe. The ruler had changed but the violence and instability remained.
What Jesus brings to us is a way out of the violence and fear. Jesus is heralded as a king but not a king the brings violence and death—a king who brings peace and compassion. Jesus is the light against the darkness of Herod’s actions. Jesus is the goodness against Herod’s evil. The Zoroastrian priests recognized what Jesus would be in the world. They recognized light—someone who would shine a light on evil and point the way towards God. That light wasn’t of their faith, but it didn’t matter, the light was too important to be dismissed.
Progressive Christianity holds as central that we need the core values of Christianity to be everywhere—love, compassion, peace, justice, hope, joy. Christianity has a history of not being able to see these values outside of itself. Progressive Christianity asserts that these values transcend religious bounds. The wise ones of this story already knew that.
In other words, Jesus isn’t the only light. Christianity isn’t the only light, and we need to seek light where we find it but always follow the light. Along the way, we will meet many travelers seeking the light and following faithfully. We might be on different paths, but we seek the same things—a sense of oneness with ourselves, the Creator, the earth. We seek love, compassion, peace, justice, hope and joy.
In a world where many people are unsafe and live with violence, we need this light guide us. We need to be bearers of light, bringing the light everywhere we go and into every place of violence and fear. The light has always been in the world—sometimes shining brightly, sometimes more difficult to see. But the darkness, violence and fear cannot overcome the light. Light will always shine in the darkness. As we celebrate epiphany, I invite you to join with me in following the light to seek Jesus and his path.