In these waning few hours of the Feast of the Epiphany, I thought I’d share my latest “In Good Faith” column from the Hingham Journal. It’s all about the Epiphany.
Let’s face it; they’d make lousy baby gifts. Gold is a choking hazard, a flaming pot of frankincense would cause third degree burns, and no one even knows what myrrh is. Perhaps on their way to Bethlehem, the Magi should have stopped by Babies-R-Us. At least then they could have found something Mary and Joseph could have actually used. Like a new set of swaddling clothes or a Noah’s Ark mobile for the manger.
Why am I even bringing this up in January? The Christmas ship has sailed, many of the white lights have been taken out of the windows on Main Street, and stores are getting ready for the next holiday – President’s Day, Valentines Day, or whatever. But this week on January 6th we celebrate the Epiphany which marks the official end to the Christmas season. You remember “The 12 Days of Christmas” (the song which I swear is the Yuletide equivalent of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”). Well, Epiphany marks the end of the twelve days; something that often gets overlooked in our rush to take down the tree and cart it off to the town dump. For our family, as well as many others, the tradition is to de-trim the tree on Epiphany itself. Well, unless the pine needles are out-of-control in which case I lose the theological debate and am charged with hauling out what’s left of the tree a few days before Epiphany.
It’s true that the Three Wise Men end up in Christmas Eve pageants throughout the land. Most pageants are a medley of gospel stories – nowhere do shepherds and Wise Men show up at the same time together. And that’s fine since it gives a more complete picture of the Christmas story. But it’s still nice to remember that the actual arrival of the Magi occurred twelve days later. Of course making that change on Christmas Eve would be a losing battle and who wants to fight with the pageant director and tell parents that there won’t be any Wise Men this year? Not me.
One reason I’m a big fan of Epiphany is the whole notion of following the Star of Bethlehem. If you’ve ever tried to follow a star for guidance either in a boat or in the woods, you know the posture involved. You have to look up! Navel gazing or staring at your feet does you no good when trying to follow a star. And while this is obvious, how often do we find ourselves metaphorically walking around with our heads down? It’s so easy to get caught up in our own needs, our own lives, our own desires that we fail to look up and out at the broader world.
A myopic view of the world is ultimately a spiritual danger. Looking up draws us into an attitude of thanksgiving. It helps change our perspective and, quite literally, see the world in a new light. For people of faith, this posture keeps us mindful of both the needs of others and our need for the divine presence in our lives. It is a perspective that sustains and blesses rather than diminishes and narrows.
And that’s how the Wise Men viewed the world. They were seekers of contact with a force beyond themselves; one they couldn’t necessarily understand but one which drew them into direct contact with God. We too can journey with them during this season of cold and dark because God supplies the light. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.” When you follow the star in whatever way your individual tradition calls for, know that your light has indeed come and that it dawns upon you even in the midst of a New England winter.
Now about those baby gifts. They are, of course, metaphorical rather than practical. Gold is a symbol of Christ the King; frankincense, an ancient symbol of prayer, highlights the importance of prayer and Jesus’ relationship with God his Father; and myrrh was an embalming oil that foreshadowed Jesus’ death. Sure, a sippy cup and baby monitor would have been more useful. But in light of that bright star, gold, frankincense, and myrrh were the perfect gifts.