I Never Appreciated Being a Three King
So. The Feast of the Epiphany. What about it?
Every year we celebrate the season of Epiphany, but most of the time the actual day of Epiphany falls on a weekday.
Big deal, anyway, right?
It’s a strange little holiday that we don’t celebrate very much.
We don’t get each other Epiphany presents. We don’t hang up Epiphany lights or set up an Epiphany tree. There are no Epiphany turkey dinners or Epiphany fireworks.
At least in this country.
According to my research, we’re really missing out.
On Epiphany in Eastern European countries like Bulgaria, a priest goes out and throws a cross into the town’s river or lake. Then the young men of the town jump into the icy cold January water and race to retrieve it, considered a feat of honor and strength.
It is not a surprise to me that it is the young men of the town engaging in this task.
In many countries there are elaborate Three Kings processions through towns, collecting donations for charities and blessing houses and singing songs. They call it “star singing” in Germany.
In the town of Cansaulim, India, there is a year-long competition each year among the young boys as to who will get to play the lead king of the three kings. The main qualification is who can grow his hair the longest in one year.
In Ireland, Epiphany is called Women’s Christmas, and traditionally was a time for women to put their feet up and relax after all the heavy cooking and cleaning in celebrating the twelve days of Christmas.
In Puerto Rico, children leave boxes of fresh grass or hay under their beds for the wise men’s camels, and when they wake up there are small gifts left in return.
In Latvia, if you hear a dog barking on the day of Epiphany, look in that direction and you’ll catch a glimpse of your future spouse.
So people around the world are getting into Epiphany a lot more than we Americans.
What makes it so special to them?
What is the point of this holiday?
Well, first of all, Christmas is over. Today is the twelfth day of Christmas.
Jesus was born on December 25, and tomorrow, Epiphany marks the day he is revealed to the world for who he really is, the Son of God.
Mary had twelve precious days to hoard him to herself.
Only Joseph and the shepherds knew he was alive.
But then the Wise Men arrive, and that is the first century equivalent of giving a press release.
They witness his glory, and go out to spread the good news.
The word Epiphany means appearance or manifestation.
Another word for what’s happening today is Theophany—the appearance of God.
It’s remarkable that God is already allowing Jesus out onto the public stage at not even two weeks old.
Surely it would have been possible to keep Jesus’ identity hidden until he was a sturdier year old, or better yet, twelve years old, or better yet, twenty years old.
He’s going to be a target for curiosity seekers and fans and lovers and assassins, give the kid a chance.
Two weeks old and already the word is out?
Yes, the Word is out, quite literally.
Because God coming to Earth as a helpless baby is a key part of the message.
So the ones breaking the news are the Wise Men, or the Three Kings.
The shepherds already knew about it, but they don’t exactly have much pull in society.
Who’s going to listen to them? They’re poor and insignificant.
Probably important that they were the first witnesses to the Incarnation.
But anyway, the Three Kings are heads of state. When they speak, people listen. When they say, we followed a star and found a savior, people pay attention.
What strange characters they are.
How does one become a Three King, one of the Wise Men?
That’s a question I would dearly love to have known the answer to between ages 6 and 12.
Every single year in the Christmas pageant in our little Episcopal church, as soon as I graduated from being such a baby that I was an extraneous sheep like all the other pre-literate children, I had to be a Wise Man and my little sister Merideth got to be the Virgin Mary.
I was bitterly jealous.
I was tall for my age and wore tortoiseshell horn-rimmed glasses. I guess my look was more Magi than Virgin Mother.
Well, I was furious.
Merideth knew it, too. Every year after Thanksgiving she would start auditioning her dolls for who would play the Baby Jesus that year, holding them in her arms and looking angelically toward heaven while I fumed.
I quit at the earliest available opportunity, the year I turned 13, and stormed off to the refuge of many an angsty Episcopal teenage girl—the church nursery, watching the babies and toddlers.
It had the guise of noble self-sacrifice while offering the delightfully naughty benefit of missing the majority of the Eucharist, especially the sermon.
How did I get off on that? Oh right, the Wise Men. So how does one become a Wise Man?
People do a lot of improbable things in the Bible, but the Three Kings take the cake.
Why did they do it? Why did they follow the star?
Didn’t they have governments to run?
Can you imagine if our President or Secretary of State left for a distant planet (for that’s how remote Bethlehem would have seemed using the transportation of that day) saying he or she was following a star because it seemed spiritually significant?
And as rulers of their own kingdoms, why would they come to pay homage to what was essentially a rival king?
Most kings would have taken Herod’s tack—kill the young upstart before he’s old enough to be a threat to your own power.
But the Three Kings were not just kings, they were Wise Men.
What gave them that distinction?
Their spiritual hunger.
They prioritized the possibility of a divine miracle over the petty politics of their own regimes.
They allowed themselves to become angels, messengers, bringers of the Good News, because they were able to see that here was the promise of a ruler whose reign would be of peace and goodwill.
They were called Wise Men because the possibility of peace and justice truly ordained by God was important enough to them that they would willingly give up their own power.
If Jesus became the King they hoped he would be, their own reigns would be over.
And they were ready to cede their power to someone who could truly and permanently achieve the goals of peace and justice that had been so elusive in their own careers as heads of state.
So great was their thirst for righteousness that they did not even wait for Jesus to grow up and begin to rule.
They sought him out with fervor the moment they heard of his birth.
The type of spiritual depth it takes to rush with such eagerness to give up your power, your identity, the role you were born to and elevated to by your entire society, for the promise inherent in a homeless baby—that is tremendous.
That is why they were Wise Men.
And that is why Epiphany is worth celebrating. May we embrace this season with a spiritual hunger that makes us wise, that drives us to give up everything to follow the star over Bethlehem.