Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Epiphany – January 5, 2014
In the name of the living, loving, ever present God – Amen.In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, the author of every sacred epiphany in our lives: Amen.
It’s an old and much-loved story yet it is full of mystery and absent great detail. The story of the Magi following a star across the desert on their camels and clutching their gifts for baby Jesus is one of the best-known images from the Nativity Story according to we the Evangelist Matthew. It has been immortalized by authors, artists, and musicians. Poets like Yeats and Williams have put the visit of the wise men to verse. Longfellow named them: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.
There are literally hundreds of art masterpieces that depict the scene described in today’s Gospel, often under the title “the Adoration of the Magi,” Botticelli and Fra Angelico among them and we are all familiar with Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors which we will offer here at St. Paul’s next weekend as a gift to the community.
The surprise is that for centuries so much has been made of a story about which we have so little concrete information. We refer to these post-Christmas visitors at the Manger as the “Magi” or “Three Kings” yet Matthew never speaks of them as royalty nor specifies how many there were nor does he tell us exactly where in the East they came from. We don’t know how long it took them to get to Bethlehem and, while artists often depict them adoring a baby in the manger but, by the time they arrived, Jesus would have already been walking and living with Mary and Joseph in a house not a stable.
But for all of their popularity, these mysterious travelers appear in only one short passage in the New Testament. Some religious scholars aren’t even sure they really existed. Now, a first-ever English translation and detailed analysis of a little-known eighth-century manuscript of a story probably written in the second or third century uncovers a far more substantial version of the wise men story.
Brent Landau, a professor of religious studies and expert in ancient biblical languages, found references to a text about the wise men in writings from the Middle Ages and learned that a collector in the 18th century had discovered in a Turkish monastery a manuscript called “the Revelation of the Magi” with a narrative about the wise men.
Landau’s book, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem describes the Magi as an ancient mystical sect descended from Seth, the pious and virtuous third son of Adam and Eve. From Seth they inherited a prophecy of “a star of indescribable brightness” someday appearing and “heralding the birth of God in human form.” Among the book’s other revelations:
The Magi are described as coming from a land called Shir, “located in the extreme east of the world, at the shore of the Great Ocean.” In other ancient texts, Shir is referred to “as a place where silk comes from,” says Landau, suggesting that the references were to China. The text names 12 Magi, not three, while other parts of the text suggest that “a group the size of a small army” traveled to Bethlehem.
Although the text claims to be personal testimony, “it seems unlikely that it could have been written by the Magi themselves,” Landau says. He cites a number of anachronisms, such as references to Christian writings recorded years after Jesus’ death. Who then wrote the wise men story? “One guess,” says Landau, “is some kind of religious community of Christian mystics.”
In addition to offering a detailed account of the life and background of the wise men, the text sheds some light on how some early Christians experienced Christ, Landau says. When they first encounter the long-prophesied star, the text says it initially appears in a celestial form that then transforms into a human form or “star child,” who instructs them to go to Bethlehem to witness its birth.
Each of the Magi, in fact, sees the star child in a different form, with each vision representing a different time in the life of Christ. Nowhere in the text is the name Jesus Christ used to designate the Magi’s celestial guide, suggesting that they experienced Christ and became followers without ever knowing the savior figure by that name, Landau says. This speaks to the “universality of Christ’s revelation,” says Landau, who is an Episcopalian. Surprise!
That is a very different twist on what we’ve all known as an old, familiar, and much-loved story. Given that we are celebrating the “Epiphany,” What might we glean and take away from this revelation? Perhaps we might develop an appreciation for the “imaginative way in which early Christians engaged” the story of the wise men to make it their own. They loved this story enough to write this version so that we could savor it. Don’t we carry on that same tradition today, whether through pageants, or music, or liturgy or art? We continue to re-imagine the significance of the Christmas story in a way that is meaningful to us.
What matters about this wonderful tale is not how many wise men or women there were or what gifts they brought with them or what country they came from. What matters is how the story can come to life in us and inform our understanding of God’s love for us—to bring us an epiphany.
This is the time of year when people typically make all kinds of New Year’s resolutions. I wonder if we don’t all want to resolve to try to do one thing: To seek God and a greater knowledge of God, to come closer to the One who is calling us, inviting us to come closer—perhaps even to begin an adventure like that of the Magi that will somehow change our lives.
Have we miscalculated the places where God might show up? What hidden, precious gifts might we discover within ourselves? Who along our journey may try to discourage or manipulate us like Herod? Do our old maps work for us anymore or do we need a new spiritual GPS in order to follow a different star and take a new way home?
An epiphany is the sudden intuitive perception of something, the realization of the reality, a flash of insight, a moment of vision—often the awesome grace of God interrupting us. The magi’s journey led them to a revelation at the end of a quest they had been, perhaps for most of their lives.
To what interesting place in our heart will we journey in this New Year? What risk would we be willing to take to search for something more? Episcopal priest Elizabeth Keaton says that “when we allow ourselves to trust…and follow that trust where it leads, we may find ourselves smack in the presence of God.”
The mysterious visitors of the Holy Family did not go back to their country of origin by way of Jerusalem. They would find a new way home. What about us? What hasn’t been working so well? Where might we need to make some changes in our flight plan? Maybe we, like the Magi, need to try another way.