The Strange Kingship of Epiphany

How better to mark the first day of Epiphany than with a contribution from the […]

Mockingbird / 1.5.16

How better to mark the first day of Epiphany than with a contribution from the esteemed Wesley Hill, who was kind enough to send us the text of the homily he is preaching today on Matthew 2:1-12.


One of the reassuring things about the new Star Wars movie—which I confess I’ve only seen twice—is how predictable it is. Some of my friends have complained that it’s ridiculously derivative, virtually a remake of the first Star Wars from 1977, but most of us, I think, are very happy with how comforting the sameness feels. We have some of the same beloved characters who don’t seem to have changed one bit: Han Solo and Chewbacca are back piloting the Millennium Falcon. We don’t have the Empire anymore, but we do have the First Order whom we can rely on for the same nefarious schemes and overblown theatrics. We don’t have Darth Vader, but we do have a helmeted villain dressed in a melodramatic black robe whose muffled voice sounds remarkably similar. We don’t have Luke Skywalker anymore (at least, not in this episode), but we do have a spunky female lead character who looks for all the world like she could be Luke’s daughter. And we have a plot that arcs from a growing darkness to an eventual triumph of the light, climaxing with a thrilling light saber battle scene.

We watch movies like Star Wars because we relish this kind of regularity and consistency. We like stories with obvious villains and equally obvious heroes, where goodness triumphs over evil, where the team we’re rooting for wins in the end. And perhaps we also watch because we wish our own lives conformed more to this kind of predictable plot. We wish the universe cohered more with our fond hopes that goodness is attainable and is always rewarded, and evil, no matter how powerful it might seem, is always called to account and vanquished in a final twist.

Yet the season of the church year whose beginning we observe today is all about unpredictability and irregularity. The word “Epiphany,” in its secular usage, is about that moment when a king visits a city in his domain. He appears; he manifests himself. And he is met with obeisance and devotion. As a season of the church calendar, though, Epiphany takes us into a story whose plot does not conform to this secular expectation.

Always let the wookie win!

Always let the wookie win!

Jesus is indeed a king, for example, but as our Gospel indicates, his rule is a paradoxical one that is manifested somehow alongside or in the midst of the tyranny of Herod who is called simply “the king.” When Herod learns of this supposed new “king of the Jews,” we are told that “he was troubled.” And by the time the cycle of stories of Jesus’ infancy concludes, Herod will have tried to assassinate this newborn king—and will have left a bloody trail of infant corpses in his wake. And rather than receiving a retinue and the homage of the royal city, Jesus, the king of the Jews, will be seen escaping to Egypt in apparent defeat, fleeing the evidently far more powerful kingship of Herod. The story does not conform to our hopes for a neat, reliable plot of good triumphing over evil.

Nor does Jesus receive the devotion of the citizens of Judea more broadly. According to our Gospel, it is not only Herod who is troubled; it is “all Jerusalem with him.” Matthew doesn’t put it quite this way, but we might imagine him nodding his head at the words of the Fourth Gospel: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” Instead, we see an entourage of eastern astrologers or stargazers coming to worship Jesus.

The 1928 Prayer Book specifies that in this feast of Epiphany we mark “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles,” and that is exactly what we see here in our Gospel: Magi from beyond the land God promised to Abraham and the family of Israel, Gentiles “from the east,” come to venerate Jesus as the king of the Jews. These so-called “three kings” eventually came to represent in the Christian imagination the races of Asia, Africa, and Europe, respectively. And thereby they represent the deepest, most intractable irony and irregularity of Epiphany: The very people who should have been most ready to worship Jesus (Herod and the citizens of Jerusalem) are unsettled by his appearing, while the ones who were long thought to be least ready to submit to the Jewish Messiah (Gentiles and idolatrous magicians) are the ones who actually show up bearing gifts to honor him and acclaim him as the Christ.


The seasons of the church year have an element of progression to them: in Advent we listen to the prophets foretelling the appearance of Christ; at Christmas we observe the humility of his coming, noting the angelic hosts who sing over him but also aware that the humble shepherds are the ones who adore him; while in Epiphany we recognize that his coming cannot be hidden forever and eventually bursts the boundaries of Judea to include the nations within its reach. But this progression shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it is an unexpected progression. The church year does indeed give us a plot, a story—but it isn’t the predictable, smoothly unfolding, linear narrative we would have designed if we’d been the writers.

And the irony doesn’t end there. The gifts the magi present to Jesus are, at one level, what we would have expected. The gold is a fitting sign of kingship. The incense attests, however obliquely, to Jesus’ deity (incense being used in the Old Testament for the worship of Israel’s God). But the myrrh foreshadows a funeral. The myrrh casts a shadow over the other two gifts, forcing us to ask whether the kingship and deity of Jesus will somehow culminate in tragedy. Myrrh, as the jaunty Christmas carol puts it, is a “bitter perfume”; it “breathes a life of gathering gloom; / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” Or, as T. S. Eliot’s great poem “The Journey of the Magi” has it, when the wise men crest the hills of Judea and make their way toward Bethlehem, what they see is “three trees on the low sky.”

This is the ultimate unpredictability and irregularity of Epiphany. It is a feast day, and we are celebrating the appearance of Jesus the king of the Jews to all the nations of the world. And yet it is a strange feast, a poignant one, in which we can already smell the acrid odor of a corpse.

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the title for Jesus that we heard in our lesson for today, “the king of the Jews,” we will hear again—only this time, it will be inscribed on a placard and placed above Jesus’ head on the cross he is nailed to. This, Matthew says to us, is the final climax of Epiphany—this is the crowning moment of Jesus’ appearing, the moment when his kingship is manifested to all, devout and pagan, faithful and unbelieving, Jew and Gentile, alike. And it is nothing like what we prayed for, what we hoped for, or what we counted on it to be like. It is, in a word, the cross.


But precisely in that unpredictability is hope. The strangeness and ironies of Epiphany give us hope because our own lives so rarely unfold with the regularity of a Star Wars plot, and we need to know that in that irregularity and chaos we are not lost.

We who are born to the east or west of the Promised Land, who are “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world”—we need to know that Jesus’ kingship is wide enough to include us within its gracious domain.

We who live under the sway of tyrannous powers, whether they’re immediately violent (like certain dictators and terrorist regimes) or whether they’re more subtly coercive (like Wall Street machinations and supra-human consumerist forces), we who live under the thumb of modern-day Herods—we need assurance that Jesus’ reign can break in even under these unpropitious conditions.

And we who know death, who live with death, who are always “in death” (as the Prayer Book reminds us)—we need the kind of strange king who won’t ignore death (always blandly basking in the cries of “Long live the king!”), who won’t hold himself aloof from it, who won’t always win and keep himself free from our terrible losses. We need a king who will, bizarrely, show us his kingship in and through our dying and death. We need a king whose gold and glitter has the whiff of myrrh about it. We don’t need a Luke Skywalker, who always seems to be soaring to heights we can’t reach. We need the strange king of Epiphany, the king who flees to Egypt with us and for us, who lives under the shadow of Herod alongside us, who goes down to the grave with us and on our behalf.

And the promise of Epiphany is that that is exactly the king we have.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


2 responses to “The Strange Kingship of Epiphany”

  1. Kent says:

    Loved the article! How hopeful for those of us who were born East and West of the Promise land.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *