For one enchanted evening a very long time ago, I was one of the Magi — a wise man. My black moustache and beard were part of my older cousin’s makeup kit and my turban was one of my mother’s colourful scarves. I think my all-enveloping outer garment was the dressing gown of some diminutive family member.
I’ve forgotten which of the wise men I was, but I do remember having some imaginary frankincense in a small glass bottle that my dad had been given by an old army friend who had served in India. That alone made it mysterious and romantic. Frankincense suggests, from what we know of the ancient tradition, that I was playing Balthazar. With two other choirboys playing Caspar and Melchior, we all made a grand entrance on to the parochial hall stage. Miss Greenish, our Sunday school teacher, played the parish piano and we manfully led the audience — mainly proud parents — in the hymn “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
Such memories link us to long ago. But the question is, why when Faith Tides’ editor asked me for a serious article about the meaning of Epiphany and Lent, do I begin so playfully? Should I not be solemn and suitably theological? Yes, indeed I should, but there is something paradoxical about childhood memory. You realize that it was making sure that you would never forget this because in your adult life you were going to realize that some things — like the Epiphany and Lent — were to become a very big deal. The vividness of the memory ensures that you know its importance years later.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us the story of the Magi. It shows us that the birth of the Christ Child in a lowly stable in a tiny village is no small event. It is a big part of God’s plan that involves the whole world; nothing less than the whole of humanity needs to be told about it.
At the baby’s birth, Persian scholars in the east see an unusual sign in the heavens — a wondrous blazing star. A delegation follows it for over hundreds of miles. Arriving at the stable, the three men kneel and present gifts to the newborn child. For them, the journey has persuaded them that this birth has meaning far beyond itself. They have what we call an “epiphany” — a moment of realization that something is much more than what it seems.
So how do we reach this understanding today? We pray and we listen — with great attention — to this passage of the gospel. Then we try to truly understand what the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ means for us.
For instance, this year — Year A of the lectionary — we are given every Sunday no less than eight readings. In them we either read of someone having an encounter with Jesus that enriches their understanding of him (and of course ours) or we read of individuals becoming aware of the consequences of Jesus’ life and ministry for them (and again for us). Each of these events gave them (and us) an epiphany — a great surprise or an eye opener! In the last of these readings, we come upon Jesus giving his followers a great shock. This epiphany was the miracle of his transfiguration. So that’s the great climax of the season of Epiphany. You might also say that’s the wonderful stuff that we experience before the tough stuff of Lent.
When you come to think of it, what you and I are doing every time we worship is that we are sharing an aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry. In fact, I have just this moment thought of a new way of grasping all this. You know the famous pilgrimage route in Spain called El Camino? Anyone who has ever taken that journey of faith will tell you what makes it fascinating is the people you meet walking it with you. Well, I have suddenly realized that if I study carefully the gospel passages of Epiphany and Lent as given by the lectionary, I am walking a kind of camino (or pilgrim way) in the company of Jesus himself! I read of how he deals with individuals and groups, how he speaks of things of the spirit, how he heals, and how he wrestles with death itself as in the raising of Lazarus.
In these passages, I am receiving nothing less than a “master class” in the Christian way. Near the end, I must decide whether I have it in me to share the terrible part of our Lord’s journey, the one that ends in pain and death on Calvary. But if I do stay with him, I am given the wonder and the joy of Easter!
All of this is ahead of us as you read this. So, make the decision to set out on El Camino with Jesus. You’ll find him very good company!
Herb O’Driscoll is a retired priest, conference leader and prolific author of books, hymns and radio scripts. His newest book of memoirs, I Will Arise and Go Now: Reflections on the Meaning of Places and People, was released in 2021 by Morehouse Publishing.