Most of our country has moved on from the holidays, but we end our 12 days of Christmas with the Epiphany, the arrival of the three magi to the manger, in parts of Latin America, today is El Dia de los Reyes, the day of the Kings.
We know from the 2nd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew that wise men from the east (Gk. Magi) came looking for the baby Jesus following a star. King Herod is frightened that they are looking for a baby born “King of the Jews”… The wise men, leaving Herod, continue to follow the star and find Jesus with Mary and pay him homage and offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are warned in a dream not to return to Herod so they return home by another road.
Later tradition says there were three wise men or three kings (think of the hymn!) because there were three gifts, and the names of Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchior gets attached to them in the Middle Ages. The gifts they offer, recognizing Jesus and in anticipation of his life, are symbolic with gold for a king, frankincense for the son of God and myrrh for his death as a human being. But those were not the only gifts. The birth of Jesus was a gift not only to the Jewish people but to the world.
His manifestation to the wise men (gentiles), symbolically reminds us that this gift was to be shared with the world, for the light of God has come into the world. The journey that took them to Jesus also led them by a different road home. The Journey they took is remembered in TS Eliot’s poem, Journey of the Magi:
'A cold coming we had of it,But this arduous journey, a long winter’s journey, with a fearful and murderous king, the joy of finding Jesus and the different road they went home by, reminds us, that each of us takes a journey with Jesus. Like their journey, our journey is not always easy, sometimes we have to take different roads then we had planned, some of the people on the way are not whom we would like to meet, and yet it is the journey that brings us close to our creator who came down to us in a little child, a child who is the light that has come into our darkness. We all have a journey to make…
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.'
In the Broadway musical Into the Woods, composer Stephen Sondheim and playwright James Lapine recast the familiar stories of Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and an original tale about a baker and his wife who are childless. In the beginning of the story, all of the characters express their wishes for happiness: a handsome prince, a warm home and enough to eat, a child to love. But in order to realize those dreams, the characters have to travel "into the woods" to confront the wolves and witches and giants and charlatans that thwart their dreams.The Epiphany Gospel recounts a similar journey: like the fairy tale characters seeking "happily ever after" in their trek 'Into the Woods,' the magi set out to find the Messiah- the King the world longed for in the land of Judah.
In their journeys through the woods, the characters discover that life is not a fairy tale: some characters die; others see their fairy tale lives disintegrate. No one is particularly happy. They discover that the line between dreams and nightmares is a fine one. They also realize that the real monsters we must defeat are selfishness and greed, that the most potent spells we have to break are fear and self-deception.
The woods is a dangerous place, the company learns, but the way of happiness is marked by humility and generosity. As one of the characters sings at the end, wishes come true - not free.
Every human life is a journey: in our journeys through the time God has given us, we seek signs of God in our midst; we seek happiness that is authentic and real. In the end, we come to realize that it is love in all its joy and sorrow, in all its demands and gifts that make us real and whole human beings.
In encountering the Christ, the magi behold the love of God in their midst (a love that the self-absorbed and fearful Herod cannot see); in taking on the monsters and witches within themselves, Cinderella and Jack and company conquer the dangers of the "woods" and begin to live lives of true happiness and meaning.
May our encounter with Christ - in the Sunday gospels of this new year, in our everyday lives of both struggle and grace - be a constant epiphany of re-creating and transforming our lives in the love of God with us (Emmanuel). As we celebrate this day, and leave here in awe and wonder for the gift given to us, that the light that has entered the world, let us in turn share our gifts on the journey and help spread that light in the darkness today.
Let us pray.
Light of the world, we bow before You in awe and adoration. Bless us and our simple faith seeking understanding. Epiphany means manifestation, lifting the veil, revelation. Reveal to us then what we need to know to love You, and serve You, and keep Your word with fidelity and truth, courage and hope, as we travel on our way, this day and always. Amen. (prayer by Miriam Therese Winter)