Sabbath Day Thoughts — Matthew 2:1-12
I was walking in the neighborhood on the day after Christmas when I saw it: the first discarded Christmas tree of the season. Bushy and long-needled, it looked lonely curbside, stripped of its ornaments and lights. Some home owner, eager to restore their pre-holiday order, must have risen early and cleaned house.
Some of us may, likewise, already be parting with our signs of the season. The traditionalists among us will insist on keeping our trees until the sixth of January, the Feast of Epiphany. A few Christmas fanatics, you know who you are, will hold onto their trees until the dropping of needles becomes unbearable.
All of us in the coming days or weeks will say goodbye to our holiday decorations. We’ll box up the ornaments. We’ll carefully coil strands of lights. The nativity set will be shrouded in bubble wrap and sequestered in the attic. Eventually, even the evergreen wreath will disappear from the front door. Our thoughts will turn away from the season of Christmas and focus instead on the year ahead.
This Sunday, we celebrate the arrival of some final guests of the holiday season. Like family members who celebrate first at the in-law’s house, they arrived late. Although we like to welcome them on Christmas Eve, Matthew’s gospel tells us that the Magi arrived long after the shepherds had gone back to their flocks and the angels had stopped singing the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Royal astrologers who scanned the night sky for heavenly portents of earthly events, the wise ones had seen a singular star rising in the east. It was a star that heralded the birth of a Hebrew king. The magi compared notes, organized a caravan, and embarked on a long overland journey to Jerusalem in hopes of confirming their hypothesis.
They didn’t find exactly what they were looking for. Indeed, when they arrived at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, there was no royal infant swathed in silks and surrounded by luxury. It must have felt like a disappointing end to their long travels. But then the guidance of scripture directed them onward, to the Judean hill country. As they turned their backs to Jerusalem, that portentous star that had risen in the east guided them to Bethlehem, like a big heavenly affirmation.
In the City of David, they found more than they had ever hoped or dreamed imaginable, a holy child, deserving of their reverence and awe. Matthew tells us that the Magi paid him homage. They fell to their knees in humility to worship the newborn king. They gave their costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh in response to the greater gift of the Christ-child himself. They knew that God’s priceless love had been made flesh in the guise of this tiny peasant babe.
Christians have long called that eye-opening visit of the wise ones to the Christ-child Epiphany. That name was first mentioned by the Patriarch Clement around the year 200. The name Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means revelation or manifestation. It had been revealed to the Magi that the star that they had seen at its rising was a heavenly sign of God’s new outpouring of light in Jesus. The wise ones took one look at the holy child and knew without question that the unstoppable light of God shone in the world’s darkness. William Danaker Jr., the Dean of Theology at Western Ontario University, teaches that on Epiphany Sunday we “raise our hearts to the shining beauty of eternal light.”
On this Epiphany Sunday, we especially remember that the beauty of God’s eternal light continues to shine in our world’s darkness. It cannot be quenched by COVID-19. It is not dimmed by the untimely death of our beloved ones. It is not deterred by Capitol Hill gridlock. It shines even above the threat of violence at the Ukrainian border. It outshines our mounting years, declining health, frayed marriages, and workplace worries. The light of Christ shines on in our darkness.
God’s great outshining love finds us where we least expect it and when we need it most. Light comes in the smile of an infant. Light comes in the sharing of communion together for the first time since March of 2020. Light comes in the sparse gathering of those who would worship on a low and snowy Sunday after the New Year. Light comes even as we worship virtually in the quiet of our own homes amid the post-Christmas clutter. Christ’s light shines in our darkness. Thanks be to God!
On this Epiphany Sunday, we recall that Jesus, who is light, saw his followers as light. He taught his disciples, “You are the light of the world. . . Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:14, 16). The light of Epiphany shines in us whenever we go forth in Jesus’ purpose.
In our simple acts of kindness, light shines in the darkness.
As we share the good news by praying for others or inviting them to church or sharing a sermon, light shines in the darkness.
When we make a healing difference in our families, light shines in the darkness.
As we nurture our children in body, mind, and spirit, light shines in the darkness.
When we care for the least of these, our vulnerable neighbors, light shines in the darkness.
That holy light that brought the Magi to their knees on that distant night in Bethlehem continues to shine through us, if we will let it.
In the coming days, our Christmas clean-up will continue. We’ll see more trees curbside. Our holiday keepsakes will return to the safety of their attic cubbies. The last stale cookies will be nibbled or trashed. Our thoughts will turn away from shepherds and angels. The Magi will retreat to distant Persia until next Christmas.
As we turn away from Christmas and step into the New Year, don’t pack away the light, my friends. It longs to shine in you as it did in Bethlehem all those years ago; it longs to dispel the darkness that plagues humanity still. The stars sing on in the night. May the Christ-light that God shone at Epiphany kindle our hearts and send us forth to illumine our world. Amen.
John Calvin. “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-6.” Accessed online at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom31.ix.xix.html
William Danaher Jr. “Theological Perspective on Matthew 2:1-12” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Barbara Brown Taylor. “Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 2:1-12” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
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.’” When 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.