Today, January 6, is the 12th day since Christmas, December 25. The well worn Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, first published in 1780, takes its name from this day. Shakespeare borrowed the reference in 1602 for the title of one of his famous plays, “12th Night”. But since at least 361AD, the Church has been celebrating this date as the “Epiphany” which means “vision of God”, and refers specifically to the manifestation of God’s arrival in human form in the person of Jesus Christ.
Some traditions also refer to it as “King’s Day”, and celebrate the arrival of the Magi from the East, as described in Matthew 2:1-12:
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
There are many popular traditions, but we don’t know for sure how many Magi were present, nor what their names were, nor exactly where they came from. But here are four things stand out about the Magi.
First, the Magi were aware of the prophecies. It is likely that they were the kind of advisors to royalty described in the Book of Daniel, who himself was made an advisor. In order to be familiar with the prophecies of the birth of a Messiah, these Magi were probably familiar with the Old Testament scriptures, but also may have received a dream/vision that guided them to the star. In any case, they were people who watched for and recognized signs from God. And they followed the signs.
Second, the Magi were humble in their posture. It is evident in the account that they were wealthy and influential, and yet came to honor and worship this new king! They bowed before Jesus and they honored him with extravagant gifts typically offered only to royalty. (Besides, what better evidence for humility is there than that they were men who stopped and asked for directions!?)
Third, the Magi were sacrificial in their pursuit of God. After all, they left their homes and families and positions of influence to go on what their friends and families must have considered a lark! If you ever have a chance to read the novel “Ben Hur” by Lew Wallace, the opening chapters do a marvelous job of imagining what the Magi might have been like as they encountered each other on their way to visit the newborn King.
Finally, the Magi were responsive to the Holy Spirit. That they first followed the star at all is an amazing act of faith. But once they found the Christ, they didn’t stop listening… they listened to the warning in their dream to avoid Herod.
It is interesting to me that, in Matthew’s account, the Magi refer to the person they are seeking as “King”, while Herod refers to him as “the Christ” or “Messiah”, and the priests who counsel Herod quote Micah 5, which refers to the coming one as “Leader”, “ruler” and “shepherd”.
The Magi were looking FORWARD to the Advent of the King, Messiah, Shepherd, and their search culminated in their worship of Jesus.
In contrast, we are at a place in history where we look BACK on the events described in Matthew. Each December we celebrate “Advent”, but it is an event that happened over 2,000 years ago.
But we need not only look back! We also have the return of Christ to look forward to, as described in Acts 1:9-11:
9 And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. 11 They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”
So, on this King’s Day, let us resolve to follow the example of the Magi. As they were aware of the prophecies, we also can get to know the Scriptures. As they were humble in their posture, we also can worship Jesus with our attitudes and actions. As they were sacrificial in their pursuit of God, we also can give in time, money, energy, and then give just a little bit more. As they were responsive to the Holy Spirit, we can listen for the Holy Spirit’s promptings, and obey.