“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
~ Isaiah 60:1-3, ESV
I hope you’ll take a moment to listen to this beautiful song by Jered McKenna, “Arise, Shine, For Your Light Has Come.”
On this day, many years ago in a town on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a baby was born. No wise men were in attendance. Having arrived six weeks premature in Brazaville, Congo, instead of back home in Canada as planned, my father was on the other side of the country. Thankfully, a nurse was home for Christmas just down the street from the house where we lived. Besides being significantly smaller and yellower than planned, I came into this world without much fanfare.
As I was born on Epiphany, I have a unique and perhaps even protective relation to the religious festival. I have been raised in non-liturgical Protestant circles, and so will be the first to admit I am also largely ignorant of related traditions. We didn’t pay much attention to Epiphany and the adoration of the Magi. As birthdays came and went, I was happy if folks had recovered from Christmas in time to remember my birthday and perhaps take down Christmas decorations. Nevertheless, an Epiphany birthday is a great opportunity to cue the jokes about the “coming of the wise man…”
Who were the magi, though? They are often called “kings” due to Isaiah’s words “Mighty kings will come to see your radiance” and Psalms 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him.” Yet, we are given no indication that they came with earthly power except perhaps by the indication of their luxurious gifts. John Calvin was adamantly opposed to calling them kings, writing, “But the most ridiculous contrivance of the Papists on this subject is, that those men were kings… Beyond all doubt, they have been stupefied by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at [their] gross ignorance” (Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 31). Calvin’s hyperbolic insults notwithstanding, it is indeed questionable that they were kings as we would typically think of them.
Well, at least they were wise. In which sense? We call them “wise men.” Yet, the Greek word for magi (μάγοι) seems to denote Zoroastrian astrologers, and is used later to refer to sorcerers and heretics (Acts 13:6-11, Acts 8:9-13). By any conservative religious estimation of the time, these visitors were lost souls who only miraculously ended up worshiping the infant Christ.
Here’s what we do know: Whoever they were, these travelers from the East, they were “overwhelmed with joy” when they saw the star come to rest over the young Christ child (Matt 2:10). Dr. Philip Doddridge observes that the literal translation of the Greek may more accurately be recorded as, “They joyed a great joy, very much.” Bad English. Good Theology.
I’ll never forget a Christmas celebration I enjoyed last month with people with intellectual disabilities and their families. One gentleman had gone up to the front of the sanctuary to answer questions about the Christmas story. Shown a hand-drawn picture, he was asked what was happening in the nativity scene. It was apparent that he required a prompt of some kind, so the leader offered “Mary…” His response was immediate and emphatic. “Merry Christmas, Amen!” Promptly, he turned back towards his seat, waving his arms as he went, a huge grin spread across his face. “I win!” I heard him say as he went past my seat, bouncing in his excitement. His enthusiasm quickly spread to the rest of us.
Here, before a hand-drawn Christ child and his mother, I witnessed another instance of bad English and good theology. Mary is not Merry, and yet she was… indeed, the most blessed mother to give birth to Jesus (Luke 1:46-55). We in turn, in beholding the Light that has come into the blackness of our world, are made “merry” too. Ridiculously, overwhelmingly, startlingly and incomprehensibly merry. This joy is not something that requires a high IQ to comprehend, nor any recognition of earthly power. It is a joy that unites us and draws us together. It is a contagious joy that reflects the beauty of the One whom we celebrate, rather than our own station or ability.
Where “overwhelm” comes from the old English “to turn upside down,” our joy sees heretics and foreigners welcomed into the presence of grace. It understands that the Herods of the world will always be ruled by those who might only be mistaken for kings. It means that those of us born on this day several decades ago should aspire not to be wise, or powerful, but to receive this transformational joy. For what good is it to be wise if the joy of the Lord does not give us strength? What use is power and ability if we fail to find happiness in loving community?
One cannot read about the joy of the Magi without quickly grieving the senseless violence of earthly powers. When Herod commands that all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two are slaughtered, we glimpse the deep fear of those who wield temporal might without grace, those who are considered wise and successful who have not love. The Christ who brings joy to misunderstood foreigners and strangers also brings sorrow to despots who have propped their power up by their own ability. Grace is a gift, wild and free. Grace is a gift that cannot be tamed or mastered. Grace is a gift that has the power, as Isaiah foretells, to draw people from all nations to its Light. The gates of the city of grace shall never be shut, and those who had been outside will begin to rebuild it from the inside (Isaiah 60:11). There will be no obstacles to access this city, and all will be welcomed in the halls filled with songs of rejoicing.
May we, too, be overturned and overwhelmed by the Epiphany of this great joy today. May it burst forth, giving light to those around us.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” (Isaiah 9:2, ESV)
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Isaiah 60:1, ESV)
From the Hermitage Museum description: “As interpreted here, the biblical scene of the Adoration of the Magi becomes an unusual event in the life of a small Netherlandish town. The central episode, which relates to the Nativity of Christ, takes place not in the centre but to one side, and is almost lost amongst many other events. The exotic caravan of camels with rich gifts for the Christ Child is also lost in the crowd. The inhabitants of the town are amazed at the appearance of these foreigners, who bow so respectfully to Mary and the Child. Yet this does not interrupt the everyday rhythm of their life and the streets are filled with tiny figures, all going about their usual affairs: some are chopping wood, some carrying water, others are setting off to go hunting.”