Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem —Mathew 2:1
No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him —John 1:18
Today is Epiphany Sunday, though someone forgot to tell my pastor. It’s too bad many Baptist churches celebrate Christmas but ignore Epiphany (Jan. 6), which falls on the twelfth day after Christmas and marks the beginning of a new season in the church calendar. Both Christmas and Epiphany date back to the fourth century when the Roman Empire was being Christianized. Christmas, which was originally created to compete with and eventually replaced the pagan festival of the Unconquered Sun (Dec. 25), recalls the birth of Jesus. Epiphany, meaning “manifestation,” reveals the purpose of his coming: the manifestation of God in Christ. Without Epiphany we wouldn’t know why Jesus’ birth is significant. You might say Epiphany answers the So what? of Jesus’ birth.
In the West, the visit of the magi is commemorated on Epiphany. Magi (sing. “magus”) were Zoroastrian astrologers from ancient Persia, not three kings. (The English word “magic” is related to “magi.”) One of my favorite depictions of the magi is Peter Paul Rubens’s masterpiece The Adoration of the Magi (above), which now sits above the altar in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, UK. You can find an image the painting with the altar here.
Shortly after his conversion and baptism in 1927, T.S. Eliot published his poem, “The Journey of the Magi.” You can listen to a recording of Eliot reading his poem here.
The poem ends with these lines:
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
This Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us,
Like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Eliot makes the point that for the magi there was both a birth and a death—the birth of Christianity and the death of magic. After returning home things could never be the same again. I imagine it was the same with Eliot’s conversion, because conversion always involves both death to sin and self and rebirth.
The Apostle Paul put it this way,
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. —Gal. 2:20Jesus is the manifestation of God—Deus revelatus. Happy Epiphany!