If the birth of the Son of God in a hovel in Bethlehem came as a surprise to humanity,then the arrival of three wise men from the East was definitely the icing on the cake.God had proved once again that the drama of his Son’s presence among us would unfold as he had planned,and not how we human beings might have expected it to happen.For the religious leaders of the time, the Messiah’s entry into the world came in a way that they least expected. Christ didn’t thunder victoriously into their Temple in Jerusalem. Instead, he entered quietly and discretely into human history as a defenceless child. And what’s more, news of the Messiah’s birth didn’t reach the religious leaders first, it was shepherds out in the fields who were the first to hear of his birth. Shepherds weren’t considered the most devout or religious of people. They had enough to do looking after sheep without ever thinking of making time for worship. Yet its to the shepherds that the angels break into a song of praise from the heavens and announce the birth of Christ as one of us! And the surprises didn’t end there…the miracle of “Emmanuel”, of “God-with-us” in the flesh of Jesus, was not just for a chosen few…It was God’s gift to the whole of humanity.
The arrival of the Magi from the East means that everyone,regardless of race or religion is invited to participate in the drama of God made flesh in Jesus. The Magi left the east and came to Bethlehem in search of a king. Where would they have expected to find a king, if not in a palace? And yet, despite the humble surroundings of Christ’s birth, these men instinctively know that they were not mistaken,that they had indeed found the Christ. And at that moment, the Gospel tells us, the Magi fell to their knees and did him homage.
The Adoration of the Magi has been a source of inspiration for countless artists down through the ages. One of the most beautiful depictions is that of Van der Weyden in the Church of St. Columba in Cologne.The artist depicts the three kings at various stages of life.At the centre, holding the infant Jesus together with Mary, is an elderly grey-haired man.In the middle, just behind the elder king, is a younger man, his gaze also focused on the infant Jesus as he prepares to pay him hommage. And behind him again is the youngest of the three, full of youth and vitality, but at the same time somewhat distracted and impatient as he waits to pay tribute to the Christ-Child.What’s most striking about this painting is that the faces of the three Magi are almost identical. They are in fact depictions of the same man at different stages in his life. The young, somewhat vain and impetuous king grows in wisdom with the passing of the years.He gradually moves closer to Christ and focuses his gaze on him until he finally reaches the goal of his life’s journey and holds the Christ-Child in his arms…
The Feast of the Epiphany then, is God’s biggest surprise to us. God surprises us by revealing his patience to us. God waits for as long as it takes for us to turn to him and to enter into his presence! The Epiphany also surprises us by reminding us that God cannot be contained within the walls of any synagogue, or mosque, or church. God is far greater than the world and the heavens themselves…but in his greatness, God reaches out to each of us in our smallness through the smallness of Christ.
So today, we too fall on our knees and pay homage to Christ, the Son of God.We don’t need to come to the crib laden down with gifts of gold, frankincense and mirror…or any other gifts for that matter…All we do need is to come in humility with open hearts and empty handsso that we can receive from God’s abundance and somehow never quite be the same again.
In the words of T.S Eliot(Journey of the Magi) “We returned to our palaces, these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease there, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death”.