According to church tradition, January 6 is the day to remember one of Jesus’ strangest encounters. It’s called the Feast of the Epiphany and it celebrates the so-called three wise men worshipping the infant Christ.
Except, we need to clear a few things up.
- They weren’t kings.
- The Bible doesn’t really call them “wise men”.
- And there’s no evidence there was only three of them.
There could have been a whole caravan of them for all we know. Or there might have been just two of them. Tradition has it there was three because they presented the infant Jesus with three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh). But their actual number is unknown.
I created a bit of a stir recently when I dared to disagree with a much-loved Christmas song, so I’m not going to trash all those Christmas carols about the three wise men/kings, but when Matthew’s Gospel refers to them it’s with the Greek word, mágos.
In ordinary usage this word means “magician” or “sorcerer,” as in, illusionist or fortune-teller, even though the KJV and RSV translates it benignly as “wise man”.
It can also refer to the priests in Zoroastrianism and the earlier religions of the western Iranians.
So, when Matthew writes that “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem” (2:1), he might have been talking about religious mystics or magicians-for-hire.
But either way, they were onto something. These strange magic men had divined the night skies, consulted their astrological charts, and arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (2:2).
Many classic depictions of this scene are flamboyant, even comical, with the “three wise men” outfitted in ostentatious costumes (pantaloons, even) surrounded by camels and steeds, bearing their precious gifts with much pomp and circumstance. But the seventeenth-century Dutch painter, Leonaert Bramer captured something of its true peculiarity.
In his 1630 picture, The Adoration of the Magi, he displays the holy family and the visiting magi in various poses of shock, fear, and/or defensiveness.
While the magi look overwhelmed by their encounter with Christ, Mary and Joseph appear to be trying to repel their strange callers.
And why wouldn’t they?
The magi were pagan sorcerers to them. As Gentiles, they were unclean and therefore unable to touch Mary’s child. Furthermore, they had used some kind of Eastern magic to read the stars and find their way to the holy family’s temporary home. What good Jewish parent wouldn’t hold their arms out to bar these incongruous visitors!
I also love that Bramer uses chiaroscuro in this picture. Actually, Bramer used chiaroscuro in just about every painting he did. That was the fashion back then. But here it works perfectly.
Chiaroscuro is a painting technique using the contrast between a painting’s light and dark parts for dramatic effect and to create an illusion of depth in a flat canvas. The word itself (pronounced kee-are-oh-skoor-oh) is simply Italian for “light-dark”.
The only source of light in the picture is the infant Christ. But when we look at it we don’t think of it as a painting of a glowing baby. Bramer cleverly manipulates the source of light to provide commentary to the scene. The magi are in the dark, but they have found the source of true light, despite Jesus’ parents’ misgivings.
Like I said earlier, the church acknowledges this event on January 6 with the Feast of the Epiphany, which is the celebration of the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, as the magi are the first non-Jews to worship him.
Chiaroscuro, indeed. This is a story of finding light in the darkness. The magi fall about, sinking to their knees, overawed by the presence of the one true God in the form of an infant. Mary and Joseph don’t yet fully comprehend all that their son will do. Mary knows Jesus is Israel’s promised liberator, the usurper of unjust systems, the champion of the downtrodden. But did she know that one day he would shock the Pharisees by telling them, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (Jn 10:16).
Jesus’ radical new kingdom was one in which Jews and Gentiles, men and women, the rich and poor, slaves and free, would be equal in the sight of God; equally loved, equally accepted, equally blessed. It would become a multi-ethnic, global community of love and peace.
If the Lord’s Supper was only for Jesus’ Jewish friends, the Feast of the Epiphany is for his Gentile ones; for the magi, and the Roman centurion, and the Gadarene demoniac, and the Samaritan woman, and the Canaanite mother, and the wily tax collectors. And it’s the feast for us too, Gentile followers of Christ, one and all.
I don’t think we make enough of the Feast of the Epiphany. That could be because us Gentile Christians pretty much take our access to the faith for granted, as if Christianity was always a non-Jewish religion. We need to recover the extraordinary grace of God that threw open the doors to heaven, that rent the temple curtain in two, that called sheep from other pens and invited us into this one flock under our one shepherd.
The great missiologist David Bosch once reminded us that the mission of God’s people is more than mere religious strategies and activities, when he wrote,
“The primary purpose of the [missional practices of the church] can therefore not simply be the planting of churches or the saving of souls; rather, it has to be service to the missio Dei, representing God in and over and against the world, holding up the God-child before the eyes of the world in a ceaseless celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany.”
How good a definition of mission is that — holding up the God-child before the eyes of the world in a ceaseless celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany!
This Epiphany may you celebrate the fact that our mission is all about elevating Christ and feasting with everyone who’s seen the light, even pagan magicians.
Christ is for all, everywhere. Praise him.