Over the Christmas break I watched the animated movie Sing with all the animals competing in a talent show. The movie opens with the main character as a child at a show titled “Epiphany” and there he falls in love with the stage. So much so, his dad washes cars to buy that theater for him. That one show changed the course of this young boy’s life. It was no accident it was called Epiphany, because that means an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure. In the church, today we are celebrating Epiphany- the discovery of baby Jesus by the magi from the east. This along with the arrival of the shepherds establishes that Jesus is not only king of the Jews, but that Jesus is for all people. Jesus came to save the world, the rich and poor, the locals and the foreigners, men and women. That is the true revelation of Epiphany- the simple truth that Jesus came for all people. We all know that the magi brought three gifts- each indicating who Jesus really is. The gold is because Jesus is a king, the frankincense signifies worship of divinity and the myrrh is for burial after his premature death.
These same magi came from the east, the passage literally says from “the rising of the sun” to worship Jesus. They follow the rising of the star which makes more sense if in fact they were astrologers or learned men rather than kings. Scripture does not tell us their gender or their number, but we have assumed they were men and that there were three because three gifts were given to Jesus. Of course, this entire exchanged is overshadowed by Herod looking for Jesus and his fear of powerful people traveling long distances to see a new born baby. Herod is the thick darkness that Isaiah speaks about in the Old Testament. The weight that changes all things and the one that light can and will overcome through faith. Isaiah is giving us a vision for the restoration of Jerusalem after a time in exile, but this parallels the light that was born in Jerusalem with the birth of Jesus.
This entire account only works if the magi actually leave their homes and follow. Only works if they risk their lives in travel and communicating with Herod because they believe in the revelation of this star. So, for epiphanies to happen we need to risk, we need to look at things in new ways and maybe get it wrong, but certainly not stay where we are and play it safe. With that said, I want to share my own small epiphany. This week as I was pondering this text, I grabbed an old Christian Century magazine. It is one of my favorite resources for theological thought and current events in light of our faith. In the June 2017 article entitled, “Who Is Jesus for Muslims?” I found myself wanting to follow a star to new thoughts. Now I need to say this is certainly not the established thought, and I am a bit hesitant to share it, but I invite you to go on your own journey with me as we look at the epiphany with new eyes.
“Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, (the wise men) left for their own country by another road” (Mt 2:12). This is the final mention of the wise men from the east. Western tradition has them coming from Arabia, Persia and India. If we look at a current map Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all to the east of Jerusalem. These three countries have a Muslim population between 92% and 99% today. So, reading this article made me wonder not about what the magi brought to Jesus, but what they may have taken home after meeting Jesus.
I can only imagine what impression meeting baby Jesus had on these learned men. Would they have told others about this virgin birth, would they have reported Herod’s fear of a newborn king
without a kingdom, would they have shared the joy and serenity they felt being in the presence of God? My small epiphany this week is that maybe they did.
We need to remember that Mohammad did not form Islam until around 650 AD. Six centuries after Jesus. So, when the magi returned home, what faith might they have had and influenced after meeting Jesus? Not documented. Zoroastrianism was common in that region, and they have even been called sons of magi. Zoroastrianism had beliefs of Messianism, (belief in a Messiah) heaven and hell, and free will. Does that sound familiar? Certainly, it must have influenced Christianity and Islam. Now this religion, Zoroastrianism, predates Jesus by some 600 years, yet interestingly it falls in the same 50 years as the rise of Islam, when Muslims conquered Persia.
The Christian Century article quotes a professor of Islamic studies in Ohio, Zeki Saritoprak, who shares how Jesus is understood by Muslims. Things I was surprised to hear.
Jesus is one of the five great messengers of God in the Muslim faith.
He is referred to as the Messiah, al-Masih, and is recognized for being a healer and raising people from the dead.
They do not believe he is the son of God, but they do believe in the virgin birth!
Mary, mother of Jesus, is the only woman named in the Qur’an. She even has a chapter named after her, chapter 19. Her father and mother are mentioned as virtuous people. Quoting the Christian Century article, “According to the Qur’an, her mother was a constant worshipper and asked God to give her a son so that she could dedicate him to the temple. God accepted her prayer but did not give her what she wanted. Instead, (God) gave her Mary, who would be the mother of Jesus.” (pg. 32). Could that have come from the wise men?
Another interesting cross over is that the angel Gabriel visited Mary in Luke’s gospel telling her of the miraculous birth and the Holy Spirit coming upon her (21:26-35). Mohammad was visited by the angel Gabriel too. It was these visits over many years that later became the Qur’an.
It might be helpful to remember that the three great religions all have Abrahamic roots. The Jews and Christians find our path to Abraham through his son Isaac, with Jesus being in this lineage. But remember Muhammad comes from the Abrahamic line but traces that back through Ishmael, the son of Hagar, Sarah’s slave. “According to the Qur’an, Jesus said, “I am indeed the servant of God. He has given me the Book Gospel of Scripture and made me a prophet” (Amy Frykholm, CC, pg. 32). Jesus and much of the gospel story are part of the Islamic faith. It might be possible that the roots of that connection, the weaving of God’s plan, may have worked its way back to the magi who came to visit our Savior and Lord. Maybe they not only brought gifts to a baby, but planted seeds within another part of the world. I hope this gives you food for thought about your own epiphany, your own opportunity to see a new discovery.
How else does the light of Christ get into the thick darkness of the world? Maybe, just maybe, by way of the wise men who followed a star, who traveled long distance, who confronted a dangerous king, all to pay homage to the baby we call Jesus. The baby we know as our Savior and Lord. Amen.