Epiphany: Overwhelmed by Joy
By: The Rev. Laura Brekke
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I love the Epiphany story; it is the tale of two seekers.
Wait a minute, did I just say two seekers? I thought there were three wise men?! I know Three is One and One is Three and whatever, but Christians can’t be that bad at math.
Most Christians aren’t bad at math (my personal failings notwithstanding.) The Epiphany story has two sets of seekers: King Herod on one side, and the Magi (or wise men) on the other. They each sought the star and the king that basked in that miraculous heavenly glow. But the motivations for each were wildly different.
In verse 3, King Herod’s motivation for seeking is made plain: “When King Herod heard this he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” The Magi come, proclaim a wondrous miracle, and the King responds to the knowledge as though they issued a threat. Not only that, but his fear makes all of Jerusalem—all those over whom he has authority—afraid. In verse 7 he calls a secret meeting of his advisors and schemes. In verse 8 he sends the Magi on their way, declaring that he too wants to pay homage to the child.
But we know this story.
We know that in Matthew 2:16, Herod kills all the boy children in the region in order to secure his throne. He responds to the mystery of the star with fear, scheming, and eventually rage. He understands the star as a threat to his power and control, and so he misses the very miracle of God in his midst.
The Magi seek differently. They are kings or scholars from the East; from a land and a people beyond Israel and beyond the Jewish religion. They are astrologers who use their education and their resources to fund a quest to follow the miraculous star to Bethlehem. They are men of means. They offer gold, frankincense and myrrh—which were the gold, platinum, and diamonds of their day—without expectation of a blessing in return. And yet, they seek not out of a need to control, but out of a sense of joy. In verse 10 the text reads: “When they saw the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Overwhelmed with joy.
What a radically different response to God’s miracle in the world! The Magi were not afraid of God’s awesome power, or of the kingship prophesied about the child. They were not threatened or made insecure in their earthly wealth or authority. They were seekers who sought for the pleasure of the seeking and were rewarded with abundant, overflowing joy.
There is much that can be made of the two responses to the miracle and mystery of the star. Do we fear God’s miracles or delight in them? Are we comfortable with the destabilizing effect of mystery, or do we seek to control it? Is God’s power a threat to our earthly power? Do we seek Jesus for power or control, or do we seek out of the sheer delight of finding him and knowing him? Do we seek and pay homage without expectation of a blessing or a reward?
St. Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th century theologian, coined the phrase “fides quaerens intellectum” or faith seeking understanding. The Magi are a perfect illustration of this concept. They have faith that the star is a miracle and that they will find a king—a holy person—at the end of it. They don’t understand how or why the star arrived. They don’t scheme or seek to control the star, the child king, or the miracle. They have faith, and they go in search of understanding.
Their foil is King Herod. He has faith—faith that the prophecies are in fact true and the star is a clear sign they are set in motion. But he doesn’t seek understanding, instead he seeks control. He allows fear to hold him, closing his vision until all he can seek is a way out, instead of an expansive revelation. Herod is left in fear—fear that grows to paranoia and then to violent rage. The Magi, on the other hand, find a sense of wonder, of awe at the sight of baby Jesus. They are overwhelmed with joy.
Do we have faith that seeks understanding? In a world of uncertainty, are we responding with fear and the need to control, or are we responding with expansive curiosity and wonder? Do we live with fear or do we allow the miracle of Emmanuel, God with us, to overwhelm us with joy?
The Rev. Laura Brekke is the Benfield-Vick endowed chaplain at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. She is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys the hills and hollers of Appalachia, even if her nearest Target is an hour away.