Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Ah Ha!

Ah Ha!  That is pretty much what Epiphany means.  The dictionary says that an epiphany is a sudden realization.  The English word comes from a Greek word that means striking manifestation or appearance.

In the Church calendar, Epiphany is January 6, the first day following the 12 days of Christmas.  In the lectionary, the scripture passage most tied to that day is the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.  Some cultures celebrate Epiphany as the day when gifts are given rather than on Christmas and in some places, the children leave hay out to feed the camels rather than cookies for Santa.

I've been thinking a lot about the Church Year this year and have paid careful attention to the season of Advent, a penitential season of preparation, prior to Christmas, then the full 12 days of Christmas beginning on December 25, and now, Epiphany.  Here's the question I've been wrestling with for Epiphany... just what was/is the Ah Ha?  What is the sudden realization?

Tradition says that the Epiphany was for the Gentiles, the Magi who realized that the Messiah had come and traveled to see him and bring gifts.  An interesting interpretation... the Magi were likely Zoroastrian priests from what is now Iran.  The Zoroastrian religion is a highly dualistic religion that sees an ongoing battle between the transcendent and all good god and the force of evil, between creation and chaos.  In their eschatology, at the end time there will come a savior who will remake the world and even the dead who had been banished into darkness would be restored into full life in the presence of the all good god.   Ok... so we can easily see how they may have understood Jesus as this savior figure and come to worship him.  Here's the part that catches my attention this year, nowhere are they told to repent of their "heathen" faith and turn to Judaism or some form of proto-Christianity.   They leave their gifts, worship Jesus, and return home.  There is no reason to believe they have interpreted their experience in any way except as Zoroastrian priests.

One cannot reliably argue from silence but whenever we read scripture we must remember that the scripture writers included what they felt their readers needed to hear and didn't include what they felt their readers did not need to hear.  Only Matthew tells us the story of the Magi and he gives us precious few details.  So how do we make sense of this odd little passage?  He doesn't tell us of the conversion of the Magi.  They don't stay to become followers of Jesus and, as far as we can tell, none of them return thirty years later to follow him.  Is the story just a set-up for Herod's slaughter of the innocents and a rather complicated narrative to get Jesus to Nazareth?  Maybe, the real epiphany is not meant for the Magi, but for Matthew's readers (first the church he wrote for and ultimately for us).  Maybe the real epiphany is that the gospel is inclusive even of those so far beyond the margins as to be completely invisible.  Maybe the good news includes not only the Jews and the direct believers but also those of foreign religions who may encounter Jesus but continue to practice their own faith in an authentic manner.  Even Zoroastrian priests are included in God's kindom.  Maybe the Ah Ha of this little passage is a nascent universalism, still yet to be fully realized or understood. 

Wouldn't that be an epiphany?

No comments: