Tonight, we celebrate Epiphany, the coming of the Light. God knows, this day, we need light. We need revelation! Matthew tells of wise men following a star - to the revelation that is the Christ Child. At one church I served, the children presented an Epiphany Pageant every year in January. It was a wonderful, family-friendly play. Carpenters built up a stable in front of the Altar.
The young people acted out the drama of the Holy Family and 3 exotic Kings who come bearing gifts. We sang the beloved carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” There is mystery and magic. The Disney version, appropriate for all ages. Perhaps you, too, as a child, dressed up in a bathrobe and a Burger King crown and processed down an aisle carrying chocolate gold coins, fake frankincense or myrrh.
The hymn ‘We Three Kings’ was written in 1857 by an Episcopal rector named John Henry Hopkins, Jr. We think he wrote it for a Christmas pageant he directed at General Theological Seminary in New York. It’s perfect for little people wearing bathrobes for costumes processing solemnly down the aisle.
O Star of Wonder, Star of Night,
Star with Royal Beauty bright,
Guide us to Thy perfect Light.
Now, Singer Patti Smith – a punk rock artist – has a slightly different version, a darker version of this beloved carol. She sings the verses of the carol in a haunting voice, a minor key. But she also includes - as a reading – between the verses – other parts of Matthew’s story.
The part where Herod separates children from their families, where he murders children to get rid of baby Jesus. Patty Smith gives us the R rated version of the same story, which should come with trigger warnings. The adult version of the Epiphany Pageant has spies, evil, madness, the quest for power, weapons of massive destruction.
We Three Kings of Orient Are. Who are these guys, the Magi? Scholars tell us they were probably not kings. Instead, they were followers of ancient wisdom traditions, likely from Persia. We think they were Zoroastrian priests from Persia. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world, the official religion of Persia – now Iran - before Islam.
These priests Interpret dreams, tell fortunes, read horoscopes, study astrology. The prophet they follow – Zoroaster - also miraculously born to a virgin. Like Jesus, Zoroaster started his ministry at age of 30, after being tempted by Satan. Zoroastrian priests believed they could find other miraculous births – other prophets - by reading the stars.
We Three Kings of Orient Are. As Matthew tells it, these three sages discover and follow the star that appears above the Christ Child. They go searching for a baby. They’re not interested in politics! But they bump curiously into Herod, who wants to enlist them to spy for him! Oh, that sly voice of conspiracy: “Hey, if y’all find that baby, come right back and tell me exactly where I can find him!”
We have these curious figures, the Magi. And we have evil Herod, feeling threatened. Is baby Jesus a rival King? History and politics tell us what happens when those in power – who will do anything to hang on to power - who may also be crazy – start feeling threatened. The madness of King George! The nice story from the children’s Epiphany pageant quickly turns brutal.
Herod wants the Magi to be spies. But our wise men are warned in a dream. They choose to actively resist a corrupt, evil leader inciting violence. They find courage to reject that sly, craven voice of conspiracy. We hear this voice in our own waking nightmare, do we not? This sneering, narcissistic, abusive voice. The strong man, the bully, who will destroy anything in his path. We know this is real.
The Magi refuse to give Herod what he wants. Instead, they use their own wisdom, their ancient internal GPS to find a different way home. On Sunday, we spoke of Joseph listening to God in his dreams. Today, the Magi listen to their dreams.
T.S. Eliot has a poem about the ‘Journey of the Magi’. It begins:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
A bit of Anglican history: These opening lines of Eliot’s poem are actually a quote from a really old Nativity sermon (in 1622!) by Lancelot Andrewes, a prominent scholar and clergyman in the Church of England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.
Eliot’s poem has the magi complain about grumpy camels lying down in melting snow. They grouse about less-than-spectacular accommodations along the way. It ends with the magi, nearing the end of life, reflecting back on what it was like to return home, changed by what they experienced. “No longer at ease … (with) alien people clutching (worn-out) gods.”
Why did these seekers after wisdom make this uncomfortable journey? A journey that left them no longer at ease with their own ways? When we go seeking after Spirit, the journey changes us. It gives us courage to resist Herod abusing his power. We cannot go back to the way we used to be.
The life of the Spirit is one of holy interruptions and of discernment. We ask: ‘Where is God, in this surprising experience of pain or joy?’ I know some of you are enduring terrible trials. Some of you, unexpected hope. We ask together - what does this mean? The deeper meaning is revealed in time. The wise men, at the end of their lives, still wondering.
The adult pageant, the Herod part of Epiphany, is so very real. The violence. The fear. We see it today. Literally, today. Today we see the grievous harm wrought by those who enable the malice of a tyrant. Will today be the day we face down the bully and finally, finally, say “No!?” Will we, today, return to what is RIGHT, repudiate one who misuses might!??
Shame, shame on those who enable the malice of a tyrant. This is a time of profound concern in our nation. On THIS Epiphany let us be calm, and support one another. Let us claim and proclaim the LIGHT of justice, of freedom, of law, as we witness the sorry culmination of what has been a season of oppression. As we witness sordid chaos soiling a land of equality and freedom.
Let us find courage in our Christian faith, which proclaims, in all things, that justice, healing and love will prevail. On THIS Epiphany - the LIGHT shines in the darkness and darkness will never overcome it.
A human history filled with petty, small, weak Herods abusing their power, provoking insurrection … THIS is precisely what makes the interruption of the Incarnation so powerful, still. That God comes to us - defenseless and vulnerable, yet filled with holy power - boggles the mind, still. That God comes to show us mercy and service, sacrifice and LOVE – in the midst of this chaos and this pain – this is as radical today – and as necessary - as it was 2000 years ago.
And we, we must be agents of that mercy and service, sacrifice and love. Agents of equality and freedom. Not someone else. We must be. We must stand up for what we believe in. We have a theology, we have a faith, we have a voice of moral leadership. We must use it.
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse far
Field and fountain
Moor and mountain
Following yonder star.
The Rev. andrea castner wyatt
The Rev. Andrea Castner Wyatt is honored to accept the call of Trinity Episcopal Church to serve and lead as Rector. She looks forward with joy to walking with the people of Trinity Church, and to discovering with you what Jesus is up to in Newtown, CT. Contact Rev. Andrea at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 203-426-9070.