The feast of the Epiphany began as an Eastern Church celebration, designed to celebrate the baptism of Christ, bu attaching to it as it did the visit of the Magi, the Western Church celebrated something of supreme importance to us – the extension of God’s salvation to the Gentiles.
There are many signs that the Gospel writers initially thought that Christ’s mission was only to the Jews: Matthew 10:5; Matthew 15:26 and Mark 7:27, and some of the problems which Paul had with the Judaisers stemmed from this sense possessed by some of the earliest converts that Jesus’ mission was only to the Chosen People. Paul hammers away at this in his great Epistle to the Romans, and of course his whole mission was testimony to the fact that it was not ancestry and the law which saved, but faith in the Lord Jesus.
It is interesting that it should be Matthew alone amongst the Synoptic Gospels who mentions the Magi – as scholars are agreed that the community to which he wrote was a Jewish one. The parallels between the story of Moses in Exodus and of this part of Christ’s life would have been very clear to the Jewish audience. But if parts of his Gospel look backwards to Jewish tradition, the story of the Magi looks forward to the final words of his Gospel:
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
‘All the nations’ are to be evangelised, not just the Jews. The Magi, who sincerely wish to pay homage to the real ‘King of the Jews’ is contrasted with the behaviour of the actual ‘king of the Jews’; the message is plain – from the beginning Gentiles worshipped the Christ. Their acceptance prefigures the conversion of the Gentiles. As Paul told the Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’
That was, as it remains, a truly radical message. We are all one in Christ. The things which divide us, indeed the things we use to define ourselves, are naught to Him or to those who are in Him.
It is hard for us to recapture how radical it was to those first Jewish followers to be told that the Samaritans could be ‘saved’: the Good Samaritan and the Samaritan woman at the well both serve, as do the Magi and the Roman Centurion at the crucifixion, of the faith that would be found in the Gentiles. There have always been, and always will be, those who feel that the Gospel message is just for them and their kind, but the coming of the Magi reminds us that it is for all who will follow His star and heed the Epiphany that Jesus is Lord.
That message would get the early Christians thrown out of the Temple, it would make them outcasts in their own land – but it would pave the way for the conversion of the whole world. At this Epiphany-tide it is good to remember those Wise Men – because they prefigure us.
Like Eliot’s Magi, we cannot encounter Jesus without being changed. Our old signposts are no longer of use, and we need to follow the new ones in this new dispensation. As St Leo the Great wrote:
“the wise men do not go back the same way they had come. It was appropriate for them, now that they believed in Christ, not to walk along the paths of the former way of life, but to take a new path and refrain from the straying that had been left behind …”Sermon 33, 6 January 443
Eliot captures perfectly that change – and the unease it brings. At that time he was, himself, a convert, and knew whereof he wrote.