The Epiphany of Our Lord

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“A Universal Christmas”

Matthew 2:1-12

  In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

            Every year around Christmastime, if you read around a little bit, you can hear rumblings of discontent from people who feel left out of the celebration.  It may be those who celebrate some other holiday, or it may be those who celebrate no holy days at all because they believe in nothing holy outside themselves.  These atheists vocally assert that Christmas began to be celebrated on December 25 because the pagans who preceded them already had a festival of light on that day.  The Christians stole it and “Christianized” it and now hardly anyone remembers Christmas’ true origins in the semidarkness of paganism.  (You will also occasionally hear Christians who agree with this assessment, and so do not celebrate December 25.)  Even besides the fact that the Romans may have instituted their “feast of the unconquered sun” on December 25 only after Christians were already using it; even besides the strange fact that atheists want to claim paganism, since pagans worshiped all sorts of gods; and even besides the fact that the early Christians were remarkably successful in their theft of the pagan holiday, it seems that the link between Christ and paganism goes deeper than even the pagans and their atheist cousins might want to admit.  But first, we should note that December 25 was not the original “Mass of Christ;” January 6, the Epiphany of Our Lord, was observed far earlier as the celebration both of Christ’s birth and His baptism.  But the dates for both Christmas and Epiphany were chosen not because the early Christians knew when Christ was born, or because they wanted to co-opt some pagan festival, but because they believed He had died on either March 25 or April 6—understanding that, for them, it was logical to assume that a person died on the day he was conceived—so, add 9 months, and you have December 25 or January 6.  What we have, then, in the Church year, is a tying together of Jesus’ conception, birth, and death; He enters flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit; He enters the world from the womb of a virgin, and He conquers death by His death.[1] 

            After the Western Church began to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25, Epiphany began to be focused on the Magi from the East, which brings us back to the pagans.  Because that’s what they were.  They definitely weren’t atheists, but they were either priests of a Persian religion called Zoroastrianism, or astrologers, whom people probably assumed had some sort of supernatural power.  A good guess is that when the Jews, including Daniel, were exiled in Babylon, they left behind copies of the Scriptures and these men studied them.  Perhaps they connected the star they saw with the “star [that] shall come out of Jacob” and the “scepter [that] shall rise out of Israel” in Numbers 24, meaning that a new ruler would be connected with a star.  Whatever made them do it, they followed that star.  However, at some point it disappeared, so they went, quite naturally, to Jerusalem looking for the new King.  After leaving the jealous and paranoid King Herod, “See!  The star, which they saw in the east, preceded them, until it came and stopped over where the Child was” (Matthew 2:9).  The sign for the shepherds was the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger; the sign for these Magi was the star over the house where Jesus was with His mother Mary (2:11).  But both the shepherds and the Magi, the Jews and the Gentiles, found what they were looking for where the Child was.  No one should feel left out: Christmas is not just for Christians!  It is for the dirty and the lonely; those who are rich with the wealth of this world and those who have nothing.  It is for kings and peasants, presidents and citizens, pastors and people.  It is for pagans and polytheists, pornographers and pedophiles, the arrogant and the prideful, the paranoid and the vengeful, the greedy and the gossiper.  It—He—is for you, and however you got here, this is the place where the Child is: the Child who grew into a Man and showed by signs and wonders—a Baptism, turning water into wine, healing and casting out demons, and proclaiming the everlasting year of the Lord’s favor for all people—by those, He showed that He is the Savior of every tribe, and people, and language, and nation; who was crucified for being the Man He is, and whom the Father raised from the dead to vindicate Him before the eyes of all people.  Here, in this House of Prayer for All Nations, the Child lies wrapped in the cloths of the Divine Service, which shines with the glory of His Word and Supper.  Seek Him here.  Worship Him here, because this same God-Man will come again in His flesh to judge all nations—atheist, pagan, Jew, and Christian alike—and those whose Holy Spirit-wrought faith causes them to fall on their faces and worship Him like the Magi will also rejoice with exceedingly great joy when He comes again (Matthew 2:10).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).  Amen.

                      — Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/1/10


[1] See Arthur Just, Heaven on Earth (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2008), pp. 135-138.

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