Fear . . . joy— two fairly strongly contrasting emotions that dwell together in the readings from scripture for the Feast of Epiphany. Herod is “frightened” by the news of the magi who come in search of a king. By all accounts, he was a nervous fellow when it came to threats to his sovereignty. He “axed” several of his own family members when he thought they might be after his seat of power. He later orders the “Slaughter of the Innocents” in order to root out what was, in his mind, a pretender to his throne.
Okay, so much for fear; now we know why not only Herod but also “everyone in Jerusalem” was frightened. The “wise men” from the East, despite Herod’s best efforts, do find their way to the child, Jesus, and discover great joy. They discover overwhelming joy, in fact. That’s an interesting sensation to think about— when are the times you can remember being so happy that you were nearly overcome by it?
These wise blokes aren’t Jewish . . . and they probably don’t fit anyone’s definition of a Christian, either, at least not at this point in the story. We can’t make them people of faith. But their response is instructive. They came a very long way to find this child, and when they met him, they knelt and offered him gifts.
Have you ever noted “Bumper Sticker Theology?” People who have pithy sayings about religious topics on their car bumpers— most of which are pretty bad (think of the slogans you see on most church signs or on Facebook. Ouch!). Occasionally, one will hit the mark. There was once one sticker that said, “Wise Men Still Seek Him!” Inclusive language issues aside, not a bad thought.
In Latin America, things are done a little bit different and January 6th or Epiphany marks the celebration of Three King’s Day. On that day, children collect grass and water in a shoebox, which they leave under their beds. During the night the magi visit, taking the gathered supplies for their camels and leaving a present in their place. This celebration or Holy Day, of course, relies on the story of the astrologers from the East who chase a mobile star in the heavens that leads to the doorstep of a toddler Jesus.
There are at least two critical facets to this narrative. First, that the magi follow this star for some incredible distance is a sign of the expansive import of Jesus’ birth; this was worldwide, breaking news – not fake news. The indefatigability of the magi in chasing this star is an example of deep faithfulness as well as openness to see the signs of the time and follow them wherever they may lead.
Second, this is also a frightening story. Herod’s interest in this child is not the same as that of the magi. They come to worship a child in the shadow of his startled parents. They come to adorn him with extravagant gifts. Herod, however, sees in this child, and in the many others that populate his kingdom, a threat. Power is an addictive drug Herod is unwilling to relinquish.
From the very first, therefore, Jesus’ life is threatened by the political forces of his time. He represents a threat to their unchallenged reign and promises a world turned upside down. At the same time, there are many who will see what Jesus’ very presence means, even if it requires pursuing a star across the skies day after day. This is the very essence of faith on Epiphany.