Opinion: Reflecting on the Epiphany

A New Year and the Epiphany

The new calendar year is upon us, and we have now had the clearing of the Christmas decorations.   And we now have the celebration of the Epiphany – the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.   All very well presented in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

We read of the arrival of “wise men” from the East in Jerusalem as they sought to meet the newborn king of the Jews whose star they had seen in the East – presumably in the western sky at sunset.   The tale continues that these three men whom we know as “The Magi,” although we do attach the names to them of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, were able without any difficulty to have access to the head of the state, the king, one Herod, and to report the purpose of their visit.   Herod for some reason for all his learning needed to seek the advice of the religious leaders as to the supposed birthplace of the “King of the Jews” and was informed that the town of Bethlehem in Judaea was the location forecast.    That these visitors seemed to know more of the birth of the king of the Jews than the ecclesiastical establishment is itself interesting.   Herod, the sublime operator, then suggested to his visitors that they should go to Bethlehem (no major distance from Jerusalem) to find the newborn and to report back, so that he could honour him.

They took themselves then to Bethlehem with the guidance of the star and found the house where the baby Jesus was to be living with his mother.    Matthew reports, as we all know, the provision of great gifts to the newborn of gold and frankincense and myrrh.    For all that, they then had a dream which suggested not returning to Herod but going back to their own country by a different route.

I find all of this open to some measure of doubt in terms of historical accuracy.   We know that Herod died in the year 4 B.C. and that though Luke speaks of Quirinius being the governor of Syria at the time of the census which took Joseph to Bethlehem, the Roman records tell us that this was so in what to us is the year 9 A.D.    We are also aware that to the world of the scientists and astronomers, the year 7 B.C. (and its later months in our chronology) saw what they would call “the great conjunction of planets” when five of them were visible in the night sky almost as one.   Such an event did not occur again and then on a reduced scale until 1982.  If the Magi were astronomers (and astrologers) – they were almost certainly men to see in the night sky guidance for their own lives – it is quite possible that the conjunction of planets which would have been especially visible in the eastern Mediterranean was the cause of a journey westwards from lands to the East.    We do not know.

The stories from Matthew then tell us of the plan to take the baby to Egypt as Joseph had been warned in a dream to go to Egypt to escape what the angel who forecast the problem would be Herod’s reaction.    We are told Herod on realising that the Magi had not passed the necessary information on the birth of the child back to him, decided to kill all boys under the age of two years in Bethlehem in order to ensure that his throne was secure from challenge.   It has to be said that there is no historical record of such an event.    We are told however that after the death of Herod, and, with significant convenience, another angel appeared to Joseph in Egypt and reported the death of Herod and the succession of his son, Archelaus.   At this point, Joseph took Mary and their son back to Galilee (significantly further north in those days of no transport) back to Nazareth where Jesus grew up.   This met the vision that the Messiah would be called “a Nazarene” – perhaps again conveniently.

What are we to make of all of this?    My answer is to say that I do not know.   It is all so it seems very colourful and wish-fulfilling.   It suggests that Jesus was from his very birth the special man that he was to become in the eyes of those who knew him.   Is this however the embellishment of storytelling to make a good story even better?   And if we then go to the stories of his birth and the shepherds in the fields and the birth in a cattle shed, it all becomes yet more open I fear to doubt.    Have we been led astray?

Strangely enough for all my doubts of the historicity of the tales of his birth and earliest life from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, I find this rather charming.   I am sure that those who wrote the Gospels, and there seems unanimity amongst the scholars that the three synoptic Gospels drew upon common material including material that may have been lost and that the Gospel of John is a very different and a significantly more poetic version of the life of the man, were at pains to emphasise the extraordinary quality of the man Jesus and his wisdom.   Not to provide a decorated story of his birth and early life they may have felt would have reduced the quality of the sublime and extraordinary of the man who had touched their lives with such intensity that their lives were to be totally given to the promotion of its guidance.    The Jesus they knew would have had a birth as out of the ordinary as his later life and message.    I do not know.

What does come to me however from all of this and it is the Epiphany – the manifestation – that supports it is the extraordinary (I used that word again and without apology) quality of the man and his message.   The writers and teachers were determined that the wider Jewish and Gentile worlds of the first century would accept without demur that in the life of the son of the carpenter from Nazareth, wisdom had come to mankind of such measure as to be utterly foundational.   His birth must have been surrounded by events that reflected the measure of the gift that had been made to humankind.

It is in that context that I see the Epiphany.    Eternal wisdom had been given to men and women of such a scope and scale that its arrival must have been itself surrounded by events of truly cosmic proportions.   And it is the measure of that wisdom that we are now being offered again two thousand years later its glorious elegance and simplicity.

For all that, I am sure that whether we want to question the stories and their presentation really means very little.    What has come to the world through the wisdom of Jesus as the last of the great Jewish prophets is a vision of life to the full of such proportions that we must ourselves be the men and women whose lives in all their detail reflect that wisdom and its provenance.   We are the sons and the daughters of the Source of Creation, dignified and responsible with beings so fully equipped to live well that our failures to do so will always sadden.     We are born as individuals so brilliantly equipped and yet equally so brilliantly different from each other that the world can happily see the whole tapestry of earthly possibility in all its completeness.   We are the expressions of an Eternal and Greater from Whom we come and to Whom we go, and we are built to reflect our origins in all that we are and in all that we do.

But the message of the Epiphany is that we must reflect those origins in our daily lives of great energy and of significant constructiveness.   We are born to build our lives to the maximum and so few of us do.    If there be a message of the Epiphany as the season of the Manifestation and the new calendar year now with us, it is that we must resolve fully to grow and equally fully to expand and offer that growth and expansion to our fellow travellers in life.    This is the contribution of agape to the world.   Jesus observed so we are told in the Gospel of St. John in the tenth verse of the tenth chapter that he had come “so that they may have life and have it more abundantly.”   That is the sole test of the worth of our lives and our activities and in this new year we must be forthcoming and constructive in all we are at all times.

A Happy New Year of growth and fulfilment – your duty of the Eternal is no less.

 Maxwell Dodd, Friday 6 January 2023


As with gladness, men of old

Did the guiding star behold,

As with joy they hailed its light,

Leading onward, beaming bright,

So, most gracious Lord, may we

Evermore be led to thee.




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