A Significant Story

The Epiphany of The Lord 

January 6, 2013

Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector


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.

-Matthew 2:1-12



 Did you know that you could literally buy a star – one of the many we see pinpointing the night sky?  In this age of consumerism, I’m not really surprised.  I guess it’s reserved for those people who already have everything.  There are several companies that would be happy to sell you a star and even name it for you – which I guess would make it a vanity star!  The stars sell for anywhere from $20 to $150 depending on the amount of promotional materials involved or the degree of certification that comes with it.

So, what would you do with a star if you bought one or had one given to you other than perhaps make wishes on it?  How would you be able to identify it among all those other stars or among the shifting seasonal night skies?  There’s probably an “App” for that but I think there would have to be something really significant about that star to be able to notice it. 

 I’m guessing there was something very significant about the star that rose in the night sky when Jesus was born -the star that attracted the attention of some men who were reported by Matthew to have been wise and to have come from the East.  It must have been unusually large or unusually bright or maybe both.

 The wise men followed that star to Jerusalem to see if anyone there knew the whereabouts of a child whom they called “King of the Jews”.  Their inquiry struck terror into the heart of King Herod because in the 1st century Roman world, there was only room for one King, and Herod was counting on being that King for quite awhile.   In his agitated state of mind, Herod gathered together the Jewish leaders in hopes that they could assure him that they knew nothing about such a child; but instead, they confirmed by prophecy what the wise men seemed to already know.  “From you, Bethlehem, shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” 

 Herod then told the wise men to let him know exactly where the child might be so he could pay him homage. What he really meant was so that he might destroy him in the same way that the Pharaoh had tried to destroy Moses.  But as Matthew wrote, “…( the wise men were) warned in a dream not to return to Herod, (and) left for their own country by another road” (2:12).   Some biblical scholars say that the wise men were actually professional star gazers which meant that they were trained to be able to see when something significant had happened simply by looking at the night sky.  They were highly in tune with nature. 

Something significant happened in our night sky about 4 weeks ago.  It was the peak of what is known as the Geminid meteor shower.  It happened for our viewing purposes at just the perfect time – when a sliver of a new moon left the sky as dark as possible.  My husband, Tenny, follows such celestial events and tried his best to get me and our daughter, Beth, excited about it.  But something about being outside on a cold winter’s night didn’t appeal to either one of us as we were sitting inside by a warm fire.  Nevertheless, he convinced us to come outside and then told us to concentrate on the area around Orion’s Belt.  And when we did, we not only saw flashes of streaking light there but from every direction all over the sky.  We probably saw meteors at the rate of about 30 per hour.   

As spectacular as they were to see, I don’t think that’s what the wise men saw many years ago.  Perhaps what they saw was more like a comet.  Comets can be seen for much longer periods of time than meteors, sometimes up to two weeks; and they follow an orbit which makes their movement very slow.  That would seem to be a logical explanation for a light suddenly appearing in the night sky; but other parts of Matthew’s story are not as logical.

For example, how was it that the wise men, who were also Gentiles, were willing to travel a great distance to see a baby whom they knew in their hearts to be the King of the Jews and whose significance they were able to honor with precious gifts?  That’s not easy to explain but that hasn’t kept people from imaginatively trying to do so and establishing as tradition what we have now come to expect in any nativity scene or Christmas pageant.  Tradition tells us that the number of wise men visiting Bethlehem was three.  They had names: Melchior, which means bearer of light, Balthazar, which means bearer of water and Gaspar, which means bearer of treasure; and each one came from a different country: one from Persia, one from Babylonia and one from India.  They arrived on the back of camels and bore gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – each gift revealing something significant about the nature of Jesus.  Between what Matthew told us and what has arisen as tradition since then, it’s hard to know what actually happened with the wise men.          

We do know that Matthew had some important messages to convey when he wrote his Gospel some 80 years after Jesus’ birth. For example, he thought it important to connect the messages of the Old Testament prophets to the reality of Jesus’ life.  He wanted his listeners to believe that that Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled:  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

Matthew was also strongly aware of the movement to include the Gentile nation in the message and mission of Jesus.  He didn’t specifically name Jesus’ visitors as Gentiles, but the fact that they hailed from the East would have led his listeners to assume that they were.   And Matthew was not particularly fond of the Jewish leadership of his day – the Pharisees in particular – and was able to use the wise men’s faith in following a star and knowing its significance as a foil against the beliefs of the Temple leaders.  It was also a foil against King Herod’s shortsightedness and a threat to his confidence that the wise men would travel so far to worship another king.

So, did the visit by the wise men really happen or was Matthew writing a story to convey an important truth about Jesus?  And I guess my answer is: Does it matter?  Does it matter to your faith and conviction of who Jesus was and is to know with certainty whether the story happened or not?  To me, the significant truth in the story is not about the wise men or where they were from or how many there were or what gifts they were bearing.   It’s about the light of that star that indicated something very important had happened; the light that revealed the birth of the light of life; “the true light that enlightens everyone” (John 1:9); the light of God’s love for us. 

Epiphany has come to mark the end of the 12 days of Christmas which began with the revelation of Christ to Israel and ended with the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.  Matthew described this important event with his story of the wise men from the East. 

Four hundred years later, Leo the Great, then Bishop of Rome, was still thinking about the significance of Matthew’s story.  In an Epiphany sermon he wrote the following: “…a star with new brilliance appeared to three wise men in the East” that “was brighter and more beautiful than others” attracting the “eyes and hearts of those looking on.” The determination of the magi to “follow the lead of this heavenly light” expressed a willingness to be “led by the splendor of grace to knowledge of truth.”  In this way, “they adored the Word in flesh, wisdom in infancy, strength in weakness, and The Lord of majesty in the reality of a man.”  Similarly, so should we by raising our “hearts” to the “shining beauty of eternal light,” revering the “mysteries devoted to human salvation,” and pouring our “energy” into all that has been done on our behalf” (St. Leo the Great, Sermons, trans. J.P. Freeland and A.J. Conway, Washington: Cathedral University Press, 1996), 133-134). 

 And now some 1600 years after Leo wrote his sermon, we are still pondering the same story.  If that isn’t significant, no matter how we choose to envision it, then what is?