It’s nearly 9 on Christmas night. Many of you were awakened hours ago by excited children eager to tear into the packages under the tree. You enjoyed the traditional dinner — whatever that is in your family — and then, after the holiday dishes were washed and put away, have begun thinking toward the drudgery of putting away Christmas as well.
Give yourself a break this year. No need to clean up Christmas yet. Christmas has only just begun.
In longstanding tradition, Dec. 25 is only the first day of Christmas. All of the month leading up to Christmas is called Advent, a time of waiting for Jesus to “come to” us. The word is rooted in the Latin: ad-venire: (“to” and “to come”). If you attend a church that practices liturgical traditions, you have been singing songs about waiting for Christ during this month.
In these churches, the first carols aren’t sung until Christmas itself has come. Perhaps the Christmas Eve service. So now two weeks of carol singing begins. For Christ has arrived, and the shepherds of Bethlehem have seen him, but we are still waiting to mark his revelation to those of us who are not Jews.
That celebration is 12 days off, the feast of Epiphany, Jan. 6, when we remember the arrival of three wealthy Persian seekers of wisdom at Jesus’ home. These three, whom we describe traditionally as “kings,” are like Jewish leaders of the time in that they study ancient texts for guidance. Unlike Jewish leaders, they do not believe in the God of Abraham, so they study ancient texts forbidden to the Jews, including astrology. Their study told them a very important ruler would appear among the Hebrews in a certain place, so they made an extremely long journey to locate him and bring him gifts suited to his importance. That trip took their caravan from what we now call Iran to a community outside Jerusalem: more than 500 miles as contemporary aircraft fly; closer to 800 miles by camel caravan. At a top speed of 20 miles per day, the Persian rulers traveled at least five weeks to reach Bethlehem. The odds are good the trip took longer, since leaders would typically make visits to other rulers along their route.
One of the reasons we describe them as “kings” is their great wealth, which makes them members of the Persian ruling elite. We also think of them as “kings” because it would be typical of a ruler to seek out a new, important ruler, either to ally with him or to attempt his destruction. Allegiances could be alliances of peers or alliances of honor. It is clear from the story that these Persian rulers did not consider themselves peers of the king they “saw” in their studies.
These three traveled from Persia — what we now call Iran — to find and proclaim their allegiance to the new king. Their caravan brought valuable gifts that would honor him. Like any diplomatic mission, they stopped in on the local governor, Herod, to let him know they were visiting the territory he served and planned to honor a king who had been born there.
Herod does not seem to have been a very confident governor. He was not excited about partnering with this new king, who was supposed to be leading the Hebrews who lived in his territory. Instead, once the Persians were gone, he would issue an order to have all of the young boys in the territory killed, so that he could feel confident there would be no challenge to his authority from a new king. A fifth century writer, Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, would report a tradition indicating that one of Herod’s own sons was among those killed.
Since Herod was not a student of Hebrew scripture, he could not know that this infanticide would be recognized as yet another fulfillment of God’s promises of how life in this world would unfold (Jer. 31:15).
But this two weeks leads up to another festival — one that church tradition considered much greater than Christmas, the feast of Christ’s nativity.
Epiphany, again from the Latin via the Greek, describes a sudden or remarkable revelation (epi-phanein: over/on – to show). It’s the word we use to describe the day when the “kings” from Persia arrive at the young boy’s home.
For us, the importance of this celebration is that the kings stand in for us. They represent the first people outside of Israel to see Jesus and honor him as ruler. If you weren’t born a Jew, as I wasn’t, Epiphany is your day. This is when our people first saw our savior and king.
So if the Christmas tree isn’t dangerously dry, keep it up for another 11 days. The kings are still a long way from Bethlehem. Our time to rejoice continues.