Now that we are moving towards the end of the season of Christmas – as opposed to having already reached the climax of Advent- we come to another festival in the church in which young people can take part: Epiphany.
Many churches find it easier to cover the part of the Christmas story including the kings, magi, or wise men, alongside their Christmas celebrations; but traditionally, they don’t appear until Epiphany.
By Christmas day, we normally have a nice nativity scene in the back of our heads, with Mary and Joseph beside the manger; a few stray farm animals in stalls; the shepherds with a couple of sheep kneeling beside them; an angel loitering around somewhere; a star hanging over the stable; and the wise men gazing respectfully down at the baby. All of them squashed into a small, but surprisingly clean stable. But when we read the bible, a few small details don’t quite add up to complete the perfect picture.
We know that a week after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple where he met Simeon and Anna. So the timescale gets a bit distorted. Matthew says that soon after Jesus was born, the wise men turned up in Jerusalem looking for him. Herod then had time to consult his advisors, and speak to the wise men again before allowing them to go to Bethlehem to look for Jesus.
Fortunately the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is only about four miles, so it would have only taken them an hour or so to get there after Herod sent them, but they definitely would have missed the shepherds. The bible also happens to mention that they went into the house, so presumably by that time, Mary and Joseph had managed to move out of the stable, and find somewhere a bit more comfortable for their new baby- so much for our nice pictures of kings kneeling in the straw.
We can keep our pictures of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, that much is right, but we should probably ditch the three wise men and three camels. They had come a long way so they would definitely have needed more than three camels to carry all their supplies, and the gifts they brought were quite expensive, so they were probably fairly wealthy; which would have meant travelling with servants. The roads weren’t nice and safe like they are now, so they probably would have had some sort of security detail to protect them on their journey. And just because there were three gifts, doesn’t mean there were only three wise men.
From what I can tell, at the moment our timeline is looking a bit like this. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem; they had baby Jesus; the shepherds appeared within a short space of time and left; a week later they took Jesus to the temple and met Simeon and Anna; at some point in the next year or so, the Kings arrive, give Jesus his gifts, and then also leave; Joseph then immediately took Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod.
The importance though is not in the timing of what happened, but that it did. I’m sure you’ll all have heard before about the importance of the gifts that the Kings brought; gold for a king, frankincense for a God, and myrrh to anoint the dead, pointing forward to Easter. Their gifts explain Jesus’ mission on earth and his identity as the Son of God.
But there’s something about the kings that can tell us even more. They’re described as some men who studied the stars who came from the east. That’s all the information we’re given. And that’s all we need.
The key point is that they were from the east. They weren’t Jews. God revealed Jesus first to the shepherds- who, although very unimportant, were Jewish, and then he revealed himself to Gentiles. In a world full of multiple Gods, what’s astonishing is that the wise men, men who followed the movement of the stars, saw the signs God was putting in place for them, followed them, and then worshipped a tiny baby as a king and a God.
The bible describes them as astrologers, but we can call them wise men because of their reaction to Jesus. Tradition tells us that the wise men came from Arabia or Persia, a good 700km away from Bethlehem. They didn’t just find Jesus on a whim.
They had to travel with determination and perseverance to get to him. There’s no reason why they would have done if Jesus was just an ordinary king- he wasn’t the king of their country so what difference did it make to them? But they could see that he was more than a king. Jesus was not just a great teacher or an admirable man like many people today would claim, he is the Son of the Living God.
The wise men travelled for hundreds of miles, over difficult terrain, on the backs of camels, just to see him as a baby. He hadn’t even done anything yet.
Because the kings put in the effort, God rewarded them by showing them the way to Jesus, and revealing his glory to them in his son. They reacted in the only way that was appropriate; they paid Jesus the kind of respect that only God deserves, by bowing before him and worshipping him.
Thanks to the remarkable reaction that the wise men showed to the little knowledge they had of Jesus, traditions in the church have grown up around them, which are particularly helpful to those wishing to celebrate Epiphany with children.
Many Epiphany services are celebrated with an emphasis on candles, to remind us of Jesus the light of the world, and the light that the Magi followed to find him. Epiphany also falls at the same time of year as Candlemas- the presentation of Jesus at the temple. The imagery of stars is often used within the service to remind us of the star that the wise men followed.
Around the world Epiphany is celebrated in lots of weird and wonderful ways. Many countries, such as Spain, have Epiphany as their main festival rather than Christmas, and so it will be on Epiphany that they exchange gifts. Other countries bake a special cake- in France it is known as the Galette des Rois.
The cake is made of two layer of pastry with a layer of frangipane in between, and a figure of Jesus baked into the centre. Whoever finds Jesus in their slice of cake- which is decided by the youngest member of the household- is given a crown to wear for the day, and the honour of hosting Epiphany the following year. The tradition is taken from the example of the wise men searching for Jesus: we are also searching for Jesus, but in cake. Everyone wins really!
Another tradition is using chalk to mark the door frame of a house to ask for God’s blessing for the year on all who live there. This year the markings would look like this: 20 +C +M +B 18
C, M and B stand for the traditional names for the three wise men: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, as well as for the Latin phrase Christus Mansionem Benedictat, ‘May Christ bless the house’.
The crosses represent the cross of Jesus, and 2018 the year which we are entering. It can be quite a good experience to mark the door of the church as a church community, and then send members of the church home with pieces of chalk to mark their own houses. It soon wears off but is easy to replace when it has!
Rev Rachel Bunting
Bishops Officer for Family Ministry, Swansea Area Deanery