Today is Epiphany Sunday, and the star of the gospel is – literally – the star. It is the original GPS device, guiding the magi from the east toward Christ. One of my favorite Christmas symbols here in New York is that massive star that hangs over 57th Street. Nothing symbolizes the hope and serenity of this season more beautifully.
Of course, it’s perhaps significant that if the wise men were to follow that star today, it wouldn’t lead them to a stable and a baby. It would lead them to Trump Tower and Tiffany’s.
But that star and all that it represents captures the imagination. The very word Epiphany means “manifestation.” I looked in Webster’s this morning and it elaborates: “an intuitive grasp of reality through something simple and striking.”
Something as simple as a child. Something as striking as a star.
History is silent about just who or what the magi in the gospels really were. In some translations, they are astrologers, in others they are kings or “wise men.” And, in fact, we don’t know exactly how many of them there were. But because they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – tradition has held that there were three of them.
It’s a meaningful number. Three is the number of the trinity. It is the number of days Christ spent in the tomb.
But it also signifies something even more meaningful and – for us this morning, much more important.
It represents to us community.
Again and again, when Christ is revealed to the world, he doesn’t show himself to just one person at a time.
Think of Christmas night, when the news was announced to shepherds – another group, another kind of community.
And now, with the three magi, the incarnation is announced to this distinct “community” of people.
This will happen repeatedly. Next week, at Jesus’s baptism, there will be a crowd of witnesses. When he preaches, he will speak to multitudes. When he performs his first miracle, it will be at a public gathering, a wedding. When he reappears after his resurrection, it will be to a roomful of believers. Even on the road to Emmaus, he presents himself not to one person, but to two.
That is part of the great message of Christianity. We are meant to receive the good news together… to live it together… to celebrate it and share it with one another.
The simple fact remains: Christianity is not a solitary experience.
Thomas Merton put it beautifully: “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone. We find it with another.”
The other important thing to remember about the magi is that they didn’t come empty-handed.
The gospel tells us “They opened their treasures.”
They didn’t bring 12 drummers drumming.
They brought something more. Something infinitely more precious.
And like the magi, each of us has a treasure to offer Christ.
The prayerful question we should ask ourselves this Sunday is: what is it? What do we have to give?
I recently heard a story told by a marketing expert named Barbara Glanz. She gave a talk to a group of supermarket employees on the subject of customer loyalty. How to get people to keep coming back. She told those in her audience: “Every one of you can make a difference and create memories for your customers that will keep them coming back.” And she challenged them to think about that.
One of the people in the audience was a 19-year-old grocery bagger named Johnny. He had Down syndrome. And he thought very seriously about what she told him and went home and talked to his father about it. How could a bagger make the shopping experience special for people? He decided that every night after work he would find a thought for the day. If he couldn’t find a thought for the day, he’d just make one up. And he had his father type it on the computer and make copies. Johnny then would cut up the sayings and put one in each bag.
Barbara Glanz was impressed by that idea and didn’t think much of it until a month later, when she got a call from the store manager. He said he couldn’t believe what had happened: every day, Johnny’s checkout line got longer and longer. People who normally shopped once a week were coming back more often, sometimes every day, just to get Johnny’s thought for the day. He’d never seen anything like it. Eventually, other parts of the store started looking for ways to make their experience for customers unique – and the whole place was transformed.
No matter who we are, or where we come from, or what we do: each of us has a treasure to offer, a gift to give. The magi were just the first. They aren’t the last.
As we celebrate Christ manifesting himself to the world, think of what that manifestation has meant to each of us…to THIS community. And let’s ask ourselves what we can give in return – to God, and to one another. What are your treasures?
The Christmas season draws to a close on this feast.
But the season of giving doesn’t have to end.