The story of the wise men, or “Magi” as Matthew calls them, has a special sense of mystery and joy to it and has long been celebrated by Christians on a special feast day called Epiphany. The Greek word epipháneia means “shining out” or “revealing.” Of course, the Bible is full of great epiphanies: The burning bush that caused Moses to turn aside and meet God was an epiphany; Isaiah’s vision in chapter 6 of “the Lord lifted up” was an epiphany; the heavens opening at Jesus’ baptism was an epiphany. So how did this particular moment in Matthew’s gospel come to be called the Epiphany? The answer lies in the fact that it is of special importance to us who are of Gentile descent—those who were not born into the Jewish race, the original chosen people.
Sometimes, reading the Old Testament feels like overhearing someone else’s long family history, and it makes you wonder what it really has to do with you. But then suddenly you hear your own name and realize this is your story too. This is what happens in the moment that the Magi reach the Jesus child. Until now, the story of the coming Messiah has been confined to Israel, the covenant people, but here suddenly and mysteriously, three Gentiles have intuited that his birth is good news for them too and brought gifts accordingly. Here is an epiphany, a revelation, that the birth of Christ is not one small step for a local religion but a great leap for all mankind. Jesus is for all of us, Gentile and Jew alike!
I love the way that the three wise men are traditionally depicted as representing the different races, cultures, and languages of the world. I love the way the world, in all its diversity, is captured in the Magi’s character of diligence and joy. They “search diligently,” but they rejoice “with exceeding great joy” (Matt. 2:8, 10, KJV). I love the way they follow a star, letting it lead them to something beyond itself. Here’s a sonnet that tries to express a little of what this story might mean for us:
It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive
they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name
but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere
but still they found;
In temples they found those
who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.
This sonnet, “Epiphany,” is from Sounding the Seasons (Canterbury Press, 2012) and is used with the author’s permission.
Malcolm Guite is a former chaplain and Life Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge. He teaches and lectures widely on theology and literature.
This article is part of The Eternal King Arrives, a 4-week devotional to help individuals, small groups, and families journey through the 2023 Advent season . Learn more about this special issue that can be used Advent, or any time of year at http://orderct.com/advent.
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