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Rose Marie Berger

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Epiphany: When Three Kings Beat a Royal Flush

Posted: 01/05/11 04:13 PM ET

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." --Matthew 2:1-2

Blessed Feast of the Epiphany! The story of the three kings who come from the east to worship the baby Jesus is a favorite family celebration in Christian tradition. Kids dress up in housecoats wearing paper crowns and fake jewels, bearing gifts and going from site to site in search of the newborn king.

Of course, they start by knocking on the door of Herod's castle -- assuming that power begets power. But Herod knows nothing about this threat to his political hegemony so sends them on their way, with the caveat to tell him what they find. (Though in his vicious paranoia he is unable to let go of even the idea of a rival to his position, so he slaughters all the tiny threats within his reach. Children again bear the brunt of adult addiction to power.) Herod's royal flush is trumped by angels, dreams and taking the back roads.

As Detroit activist-theologian Bill Wylie-Kellermann reminds us in Another Way:

The magi, of course, carry a similar freight in Matthew's more modest telling. They act the very embodiment of Isaiah 60. Are these aliens in the land? They stand for all nations and peoples outside of Israel. Do we see them as kings? They kneel on behalf of all authority. Do they bear gifts? Thoughtfully packed from the ancient text. Then Matthew adds his ironies, bitter as myrrh and scented with passion: the imperial hand, displeased, has already conceived a strike force.

In the gospel narrative, the imperial reversal, really a choice, is explicit. Their treasures are not for the palace, so accustomed to drawing tribute and taxes, but for a child at the margin. And though Herod, the imperial puppet king, would lure them into his homeland security surveillance apparatus (and the violence for which it fronts), they quietly demure. Compared to his duplicity, their single-hearted yearning seems almost naive. But they are wise to serpents. These first resisters of the New Testament slip the grip of his scheme. Prompted by dream epiphany, the magi go, what Matthew calls, "another way."

Eventually, Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior (as tradition names the Magi) find a barn under a particularly brilliant star. In it resides a small family with an infant. (When I was little, our "kings" sometimes used a cheap pocket compass. Now I suppose it would be a TomTom XL.)

For a wonderful meditation on the Magi and Epiphany, I recommend reading American cinematographer John Bailey's essay Cauchetier's Christmas Card: Adoration of the Magi reflecting on photographs by Raymond Cachetier.

Images of the Magi first appeared in Christian art in the fourth century as catacomb paintings and on sarcophagi reliefs. They were at first represented in Eastern dress: distant visitors come to give tribute to the new king of the West. The visit of the Three Kings quickly became a central motif in Christian iconography, foretelling the triumph of this new religion. In an email that Raymond Cauchetier sent me accompanying his photos of sculptures of the Three Kings (celebrated by Christians on Jan. 6 as the Epiphany), he said that the dominance of this story in Christian lore is all the more amazing as the only mention of it in the canonical gospels is Matthew, 2:1-11. [Here] is this much-loved, oft-reproduced sculpture from Autun, of the Sleeping Magi. Such an intensely horizontal image is rare in Romanesque iconography and its lateral line is even more focused by the wing and pointed hand of the angel. The sweeping incisions defining the blanket also contribute to the strong left to right movement. Cauchtier's normal single source light defines an even stronger sculptural depth, but here he has a second source coming from low left. Whether the angel is waking the sleeping kings to tell them to follow the star above them to the stable or to warn them on their return home not to report back to King Herod--has long been debated by scholars. Any guesses?

Read Bailey's complete essay here.

It's tradition to bless houses on Epiphany. Using an evergreen branch and a bowl of water, sprinkle your doorway and pray that God will keep watch over you (Psalm 121:8 "The LORD guards you as you come and go, now and forever"). With a piece of chalk mark the top of your doorway with the following: 20 C+M+B 11. (The initials represent the three traveling Magi surrounded by the current year.) This simple celebration will keep you mindful throughout the year of travelers, hospitality and God's watchful gaze.

Where is your star? one asks at Epiphany. Where is it taking you?