We know from the Bible there was a star, and there were gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but the rest of the Epiphany story we’ve learned from oral tradition, carols, pageants and winter celebrations by centuries of Christians. While Catholics and some orthodox religions celebrate the Epiphany as a separate feast day, no matter what day January 6 happens to fall on, Sarah Wastella said her church celebrates it on the Sunday closest to January 6.
Last year, the traditional Epiphany actually did fall on a Sunday and Wastella, senior pastor of Crozet Methodist Church, said she avoided imagery and stories about the three wise men throughout Advent, just so the congregation could give them a proper welcome on the Sunday commemorating their arrival in Bethlehem.
Even without the embellishments of the ages, the story is pretty amazing, Wastella said. The wise and holy men from ancient Persia (there were probably more than three in the caravan, she said, as they would have had an entourage) noticed a new star in the night sky that did not behave like the rest of the stars. “So, this was something they could observe only over time,” she said. “They would have seen the positions of the other stars change, but this mysterious star remained constant in the west.” The men probably would have been Zoroastrians, and some secular accounts say their studies of the Old Testament led them to be watchful for the star that would signify Christ’s birth.
They eventually set out, mysterious figures usually depicted in robes and crowns, with camels traveling west in a stately pace. They checked in with Herod, asking his help in finding the young king. Herod identified Bethlehem from the scriptures as the place of Christ’s birth, so he pointed them in the right direction, but he had an ulterior motive. Terribly worried about the threat to his power from a new “king,” Herod pretended to want to visit himself, and asked the men to return with the exact directions, so he could pay his respects.
Still guided by the star, the men found Mary with a child who by then would have been anywhere from six months to two years old. They’d moved from the stable into a house of some kind, according to Matthew, Wastella said. The men immediately knew they were in the presence of God, and offered their gifts: Gold for wealth, Myrrh for health, Frankincense for anointing. They weren’t called “wise men” for nothing. They knew Herod was being deceitful and traveled the hundreds of miles back home without a word to him.
The magi (wise men) were given their names, probably during the Middle Ages, Wastella said, when stories and pictures were used to teach a public that was not universally literate. The names, Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior, are not mentioned in the Bible, but those names appear in about the 8th Century, along with the tradition that they were from Arabia, Persia and India; and each one was attached to a specific gift.
The gifts were timely, Wastella said, and tradition says they enabled the Holy Family to flee to Egypt when Herod ordered every male child two and under around Bethlehem to be killed. They returned a few years later only when they learned of Herod’s death.
What does the story mean for us? “I think it means it’s never too late. Some of us are there from the beginning, others arrive only after many challenges,” Wastella said. “There is a path for everyone, and even those outside the traditional path can always show up.”