YES, IT’S ALL A BIT CONFUSING. Epiphany, or Three Kings, was celebrated this past week in various European cultures, by the exchange of small gifts on January 6th. The day before, January 5th, was the twelfth day of Christmas, or Twelfth Night, the occasion for feasting on the last Christmas dinner in some traditions. Then on the seventh, Christmas was celebrated in Russia and some other Eastern Orthodox nations.
So now we have moved from Christmastide into Epiphany, which lasts through to the day before Lent. ‘Epiphany’ means ‘to make known’, ‘to reveal’. It focuses on the mission of the church to make Christ the King known to the world. In the Orthodox and Oriental traditions, it is also called Theophany – the manifestation of God. This day commemorates the visit of the wise men bringing their gifts to the Christ child.
The Magi were the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as ‘king’ and thus to make him known to the wider world. The implication for missions is that Jesus came for all peoples, as Simeon proclaimed, that this child would be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32). Epiphany calls for the healing of divisions of bigotry and prejudice, a theme worth contemplating in today’s climate of growing xenophobia in Europe.
So who just were these three kings? Everyone knows them as Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, right? Perhaps we received Christmas cards showing the three as representing different ages of youth, middle-age and elderly – and Balthasar as a black.
But nowhere does the Bible say that there were three of them. Nor that they were kings. Matthew, the only gospel that mentions them, just says that wise men, or ‘magi’, came from the east to Jerusalem in search of a new king whose star they had seen in the heavens. No mention of how many, or of their status or names. Tertullian (160-225) described them as kings, probably in the light of Old Testament passages predicting ‘kings coming to the brightness of your dawn’ … with gold and frankincense (See Isaiah 60:3,6; Ps 72). Origen (185-254 ) presumed that there was a ‘king’ for each of the three types of gifts. A sixth-century manuscript, Excerpta Latina Barbari, gave the kings the above-mentioned names. England’s first church historian, Venerable Bede, may have started the tradition that the Magi represented the three age-groupings.
However, one thing we do know about them: they were not card-carrying evangelicals! More likely they were Zoroastrians from Babylon – astrologers! Daniel was actually appointed head of the Magi – wise men, magicians, enchanters, diviners – in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon (Daniel 2:48). Through his influence, the Magi learned about the Jewish sacred writings, including their predictions about Israel; the oracle of the pagan prophet Balaam, for instance, that a star would come out of Jacob, a sceptre would rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:15-17.) The Roman historian Tacitus also referred to this oracle of Balaam, apparently rumoured throughout the pagan world.
So, following a rumour and a star, the wise men set out on a long journey, in full faith that somewhere a king had been born whom they wanted to worship. They had the gifts already purchased and wrapped! Note the spiritual hunger and openness of these pagans. Naturally they headed for Jerusalem to ask the Jewish scribes there where the Messiah should be born. S√∏ren Kierkegaard comments that, ‘although the scribes could explain where the Messiah should be born, they remained quite unperturbed in Jerusalem. They did not accompany the Wise Men to seek him. Similarly we may be able to explain every article of our faith, yet remain spiritually motionless. The power that moved heaven and earth leaves us completely unmoved.’
What a contrast! remarks Kierkegaard. ‘These scribes had sat and studied the scriptures for years, like so many dons (academics). Who had the more truth? Those who followed a rumour, or those who remained sitting, satisfied with all their knowledge? What an atrocious contradiction that the scribes should have the knowledge and yet remain still!’ (See Meditations from Kierkegaard).
Bethlehem was a mere hour’s walk from Jerusalem, but none bothered to tag along with the Gentile Magi who had travelled hundreds of kilometres! After all, they were not Jews. They were not of the right club, stream or denomination. It would not have been kosher to travel with the uncircumcised.
Today many outside the church are seeking spiritual reality more earnestly than many inside. In fact, the last place many of these God-seekers expect to encounter spirituality is inside the church! They may be following rumours and stars, but they are seeking. They are seeking via astrology, yoga, reiki, feng shui, channelling, kabbalah, tarot cards, Taoism, Wicca, goddess worship, holistic healing, the human potential movement and a host of other options. A new gnosticism is enjoying a revival through best-sellers about secret gospels and the hidden truth about Jesus, including The Da Vinci Code.
I recently met an evangelical scholar who believes God is saying something very significant to the church through the New Age movement. He has written a book called ‘What the New Age is saying to the Church’, 1991 (updated in 1999 as: ‘What the New Age is still saying to the Church’). For Dr John Drane from Aberdeen, Scotland, many of those involved in New Age are the Magi of our times, truly God-seekers. He is concerned that we, like the scribes of Jerusalem, can all too easily respond to their spiritual hunger with pharisaical indifference or rejection.
As Kierkegaard might ask: Who has the more truth? Those who follow rumours and stars, or those who remain sitting, satisfied with all their knowledge?
Dr Drane has been asked on several occasions to share about Jesus at Findhorn, the world-famous New Age centre in Scotland. He has (co-)written numerous books and articles, including Faith in a Changing Culture; The Bible Phenomenon; The McDonaldization of the Church; and Beyond Predictability: the Tarot and your spirituality.
He has agreed to participate as keynote speaker in a Europe-wide conference on Evangelism in a New Age, sponsored by the Hope for Europe evangelism network, from October 31 (Halloween) to November 3 this year. We plan to hold this in Basel, where the largest psychic fair in the world is held each November. We will announce more details later, but we expect to bring together other practioners from across Europe who are developing effective ways to communicate with those seeking reality in the New Spirituality.
This New Spirituality is in my view likely to play a more significant role in shaping Europe’s future than is Islam. Why? Simply because it is far more attractive to Europeans. And yet I know of very few bible colleges, seminaries or YWAM courses equipping believers for cross-cultural mission work into this field in Europe. Over the next few weeks I plan to look at some of the expressions of this new paganism – which is really an old pre-Christian spirituality – capturing many minds today: including the Kabbalah (with Madonna and David Beckham as high profile adherents) and The Da Vinci Code (being filmed right now, starring Tom Hanks).
Are we ready for this?
Till next week,