On the Manifestation of Christ
January 5, 2020
In the assembly of the Most High Wisdom will open her mouth,
and in the presence of his host she declares her worth:
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist.
I dwelt in highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven and have walked in the depths of the abyss.
In the waves of the sea, in the whole earth, and in every people and nation I held sway.
Among all these I sought a resting place; in whose territory should I abide?
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
In my household, I am the only person who is not at least half Lithuanian. This offers some real advantages. I do not speak the language, so there is a fair amount of discussion that does not vie for my attention in the least bit. The melodious sounds of a foreign language are simply the background music of my life at home. There are Lituanian traditions that I have learned about and adopted, too, like the birthday song which has four verses and a raucous ending that is more like cheering than singing. Another tradition is the celebration of Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, on January 6th. A cake is baked with a golden ring hidden inside and while it bakes the children are charged with making a paper crown for the person who will find the ring in their piece of cake. I love this ritual because we have to eat the whole cake.
For over twenty years we have been celebrating Three Kings’ Day like this but it has only been in the last couple of years that I have realized that the crown is not a symbol of the kings that came to see Jesus, it is a symbol of what the three kings found; I believe they found the manifestation of God. A manifestation is defined as “an event, action, or object that clearly shows or embodies something, especially a theory or an abstract idea.” I am hard pressed to come up with an idea more abstract than the idea of God and yet what we find in Jesus, especially as an infant, could not be more actual. What we find in Jesus as he matures and begins to teach could not be more concrete. Jesus, I believe, is the manifestation of God and the visit by the three kings is an important part of the story that is worthy of a celebration and cake.
The three kings, also known as the Magi, come from “afar” following a star that guides them to Bethlehem. The Magi are not from the Jewish community and yet they have interpreted the signs and perhaps even scriptures from other cultures that spoke of the portents of this birth. The fact that the Magi come from far away to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews is a foreshadowing of the cross-cultural impact that Jesus’s teaching will initiate. Two thousand and twenty years later, it is not difficult to see how this had played out on the world stage where the stories of Jesus Christ have reached every country on earth and 1 of every 3 people identify as followers of Christ. The actual coming of the Magi testifies to their certainty that a great event has taken place and the returning of the Magi to their lands afar is the beginning of the spreading awareness of the great event that we celebrate each Christmas, the birth of the Christ child.
It is only in the book of Matthew that we find the story of the Magi written as we heard it today but there is another account, an account written in the first person, an account that was found in the Vatican Library, and only translated into English ten years ago. The scholar who shaped his dissertation at Harvard around translating the text is Brent Landau. He has since written a book titled Revelation of the Magi. If this piques your interest as it did mine, you can find an online text of an interview with Diane Rehm and the video of a newscast from ABC interviewing Brent Landau. Here is what I gleaned. The text is written on vellum which is prepared animal skin. The vellum had originally been used to record portions of the new testament writings in Greek, then the vellum was scrubbed and reused to record the first-person account of the Magi in what Landau estimates to have been written around 200- 300 A.D. There are many things that I find striking about what is contained in the detailed account but there are two pieces that surprised me the most. First, the author of this ancient text describes how the light of the star coalesces into the form of an infant. Whether taken literally or figuratively, this is a startling image, is it not? And it certainly adds an air of gravitas to the words of Jesus when he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Secondly, the author recounts that the Christ child offered the following words: “This is one of many occasions in which I have appeared to the people of the world.”
For someone like myself, someone who is incensed that so much harm has come from disagreements about religion, incensed that wars have been fought, that blood has been shed in copious amounts over the millenia, incensed that violence over religious differences continues to this day…for someone like me, the message recorded in this ancient text is profound for it implies multiplicity. Not just one event but one of many. Not just one appearance of God but one of many. Not just one manifestation, perhaps, but one of many. It is nearly impossible to fight over a claim worded like this. Here is a question: would it diminish, in any way, the validity of our teacher, Jesus Christ, if he were to say to us, “This is one of many occasions in which I have appeared to the people of the world”? I think not. For me, at least, such a statement only magnifies the wonder of God; as Socrates wrote, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
In closing, on this Sunday, the day before Epiphany, we move through the end of Christmastide and I hope and pray that we have regained some sense of wonder and perhaps some wisdom, too, over these past five weeks. As our days grow longer, we will once again be turning to the life and teachings of Jesus. “I am the light of the world,” he says. May we grow in wisdom and understanding, that we may see all things and all people through the light of Christ. Amen.
God of all, we are in need your grace. At any age, true security and peace are difficult for us to find. As a culture we strive to do more and more, and find we have less and less. Remind us to search for and hold fast to what holds the most meaning for us in our lives. Help us to trust in our wisdom and to take a stand for what we know we need. God of all, we need your grace. Help us to find the place within us where you reside. From this place, we are stronger and we see more clearly, because your strength and vision become ours. From this centered place within, we can live in gratitude, even as we are struggling; as the chaos rages around us, we can be a source of peace. Thank you, God, for the calm waters of our lives, and for the stormy seas, as well. Thank you for being our anchor when we need to be held, and our buoy when we need to rest. Turn our minds to prayer in all that we face, Lord, and remind us, please, that we are never alone. With all that I am, I pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.