The Christmas season is now officially over.
As of today, we begin a new season in the church year, the season of Epiphany. And yet, it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the story we just heard from Matthew’s gospel sounds like Christmas! It’s the story of the “Three Wise Men,” or, The Magi. These people had traveled a long distance. They looked different from the people of Israel. They dressed different. Their beliefs were different.
I was browsing the Christmas card choices in local stores before Christmas and as I did I found a bunch of cards with the three wise men on the front. But, there are no wise men in the Christmas story! When I was growing up our family had a nativity scene in which the shepherds, the angel, the animals, and the wise men are all crowded together with Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus. It was like a holiday family portrait where everyone tries to squeeze in. But, again, the wise men don’t show up during our Advent and Christmas readings. It’s in Epiphany that we hear their story!
And yet, it seems like Christmas, doesn’t it? The Magi bring gifts to the Christ child. For many people, isn’t that an important part of the Christmas experience—giving gifts to children? We don’t find gift-giving in the Scripture stories of Christmas. We find this practice…in the season of Epiphany!
Now, what do you think? What would a young child do with gifts like the ones the wise men offered? Gold, frankincense and myrrh? Not exactly like a new doll, or a toy truck, or any kind of gift that seems appropriate for a child! These are grown-up gifts! These were valuable gifts that would have been very welcome by his parents! They would have come in handy during their escape to Egypt to buy safe passage.
In our Epiphany readings we find themes of abundance. Hinting at the riches of the wise men Isaiah speaks of the Messiah, declaring that the “wealth of the nations shall come to you…gold and frankincense.”
Paul the Apostle uses this language, too. In his letter to the Ephesians (v.8) he speaks of bringing to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ. Later he teaches (v.10) that the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known. The season of Epiphany is rich with the language of abundance!
Ours is a God of abundance! But when we speak of God’s abundance we speak not just of quantity but quality. The quality of God’s abundance is made known, as Paul puts it, in love, peace, joy. These gifts of God are made known through the rich variety or, as we might put it, diversity, of God’s creation.
St. Paul should know about diversity. Today’s second reading is his celebration of ministry to the Gentiles. Gentiles are anyone who is not a Jew. Paul himself was a strict Jew who, prior to his conversion, tolerated nothing that threatened his own small view of God’s work in the world.
Here in Ephesians is the “new and improved Paul” who declares that the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. “Members,” “sharers”–he counts these “outsiders” as equals!
Paul’s openness to outsiders is one of the main reasons you and I are Christians at all! Paul’s openness to outsiders was the key to our faith tradition spreading beyond the Holy Land, to Asia and Europe and Africa, to North and South America. Paul did not say to the Gentiles he met, “You need to be like me!” In the process of meeting people of different races and different places he himself was transformed and even strengthened by the gifts of others different from himself.
In Paul’s story we find hints of the original Epiphany story. Was it not Mary and Joseph who welcomed three strangers—the wise men–into their home? Was it not they who welcomed the wise men? Was it not they whose hospitality allowed riches to be brought to the Christ child?
Might it be that Paul’s conversion, his transformation, his mission to the Gentiles might have something to do with the Epiphany story? Might Paul have been inspired by the openness, the generosity of Mary and Joseph to what seemed foreign or different?
We know from our own nation’s experience that the more we welcome people from all nations the more gifts we all receive through the diversity of our talents. In the Scriptures we find a similar message, what Paul describes as the “mystery of Christ,” which is God’s love and God’s welcome to all people.
We who are the spiritual descendants of Mary and Joseph and Paul the Apostle face the same choices they did: In our churches, in our lives, we are invited to find ways to welcome God’s presence in what is new and different, and share in the riches that such diversity brings. We don’t have to, of course, but we may miss out.
The season of Epiphany opens with a story of hospitality, of Mary and Joseph welcoming strangers—foreigners–into their home. Their hospitality was blessed with unexpected riches. It was true for them as it was true for Paul and as it has been true throughout the history of our faith: the gracious riches of God are revealed in the world through the abundant diversity of God’s people to all who choose to welcome it!