Unpacking Epiphany: Beyond Three Kings

7 Jan, 2024

By the Rev’d Lucy Nguyen

Season: The Epiphany

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 | Ephesians 3:1-12| Matthew 2:1-12

When contemplating what to offer this morning, I was consumed with images of magi, wise ones, sages, kings making their trek to Bethlehem with those outstanding gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. All fine and traditional, and yet once again gathered-community, a reality check seems needed on this Sunday of Epiphany about the stories we are telling ourselves and others, so we can be clear that our faith message does not become another party game like “Pass the Message” – where we all end up repeating nonsense and what we say and know is of no help to anyone, ourselves included.

As I researched for a fuller understanding of my own thinking, I came across this helpful introduction: “Just five days before Christmas in 2008, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Doctor Rowan Williams, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion started a firestorm. During a BBC interview, His Grace was quoted to say that the story of the ‘three wise men is a legend’. The Archbishop was also heard to say that he remained unconvinced that there was indeed a star that led the legendary trio to the birthplace of the Christ Child.” (1)

How can this be, you may wonder – where did we get this story of Epiphany and all that we tell ourselves and others about 3 kings and their gifts? Well, the reference (the only reference) to these men in the Bible is in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew, and they’re not called “wise men” or “kings,” nor is there a mention of how many there were. It only describes “some men from the East” and “visitors from the East.” What we have come to believe is that the writer in the Gospel of Matthew is reimagining a prophecy from hundreds of years earlier, found in the book of Isaiah in the First Testament, which describes nations of the world recognizing Israel as the light of the world and celebrating that with gifts of gold and frankincense and other gifts of value. And the gifts were probably decided on by the writer for their symbolism: gold, as it still does today, represented wealth and power. Frankincense was a type of incense and perfume, appropriate for deities. Myrrh was a bit unusual. It was an oil used for anointing kings but also in ancient Egypt, it was used in embalming processes, so Christians have interpreted its inclusion as a foreshadowing of Jesus’s death. (2) All very symbolic.

Reading elsewhere we learn that despite the efforts of many to pinpoint the star or to determine the identity of the magi, that’s actually never happened and so it seems, as the Archbishop indicated, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew never intended his readers to take this story literally. And that’s okay – we’re used to learning and receiving revelations through parables and metaphors. We know parables and metaphors DO NOT MEAN that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew did not intend for us to take the story seriously. The Rev Dawn Hutchings suggests the writer of the Gospel of Matthew is trying to put into words that which words cannot explain. She explains: “The writer is trying to express the wonder that was experienced by those who encountered Jesus of Nazareth; an experience so real, so amazing so life transforming that only the language of parable could hope to capture even a hint of who Jesus was, is and ever more shall be.”

The Rev Bruce Epperly reminds us “Epiphany is a story of revealing, of God reaching out to humankind and humankind awakening to God’s initiative. The wise ones, who were of the Zoroastrian faith, push us beyond the boundaries of religion, race, and revelation. In Christ, there is neither male nor female, Jew or Greek, Christian or non-Christian, or faithful or unfaithful. The wisdom of God comes to us in its “rich variety,” as proclaimed in Ephesians. On the Feast of Epiphany, the focus is on the spiritual pilgrimages of the magi as well as the holy family’s ensuing flight to Egypt (3) and our own lifelong spiritual pilgrimage.

The season of Epiphany is a window to the many faces of God, found in the many religious pathways of humankind. The journey of the magi reminds us that revelation is given to – and can come from – persons beyond our ethnic and religious boundaries. God is generous with revelation and salvation, and desires that we – like the magi – keep our eyes on the heavens, looking for stars to guide us beyond our religious comfort zones to discover and grow from our encounter with the varieties of healthy and insightful religious experience. (3)

And … what of Herod, you wonder? Hutchings suggests two very real manifestations of Herod. Firstly, each of us possesses an inner-Herod who doesn’t like it when we pay homage to any king other than ourselves. And secondly, Herod is found in our families, and in our social, political, economic, and religious systems. Herod is present as the power of domination. (1)

The pilgrimage is a journey not without challenge; the paths we take make a difference, and thankfully for much of the journey, we’re in it together. What do we bring with us – what is already packed that needs unpacking, what might be added to the suitcase or backpack of your heart and mind? What are our treasures? – perhaps not frankincense, gold, and myrrh. We each have our own gifts, many I suspect still to be discovered, which is something we can do together – to notice and share what we enjoy and value of others, and not to take anyone for granted.

Your pilgrimage need not take you out of town; it may take you inward on a journey of self-discovery, on a journey of deepening friendship, of a new relationship or rediscovery. As Hutchings goes on to say “There is no single, final destination that we’re ever going to arrive at in our lifetime. Do we think that the Magi’s spiritual journey was over when they arrived at the stable—that they found Christ and then stopped growing spiritually? Don’t you believe it! Christ is the ever-present light of our lives, beckoning from the many stars that allure us, calling us toward our own divine image and inspiring us to give our lives as an offering so that all of creation may continue to evolve.” (1)

It will be challenging; we may be a bit uncertain, so hear the angels whisper to you “fear not.” You also have an “inner Magi” and it is very wise. We will find our way home – we are home already. Home is the heart of God. (1)

This is the Epiphany story we share! Thanks be to God, Amen.


The Most Rev Justin Welby is the current Archbishop of Canterbury
(2) (Here’s What History Can Tell Us About the Magi | TIME)
(Myrrh is the “outlier,” according to Kristin Swenson, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the forthcoming A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible. We note that in Mark 15:23, Jesus is offered wine with myrrh before his crucifixion, because it is a painkiller.

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