Until Francis of Assisi came along and subverted it all, the most popular scene in Christian art to be drawn from the infancy narratives was the adoration of the magi. The reasons, as often in church history had less to do with theology or devotion than with more earthy matters. Art was, by and large, commissioned by rulers, and such men had a natural interest in having the infant Jesus portrayed as a king among kings. Even in pictures of the mother and her child we see no vulnerable human baby but a miniature sovereign, often with crown and sceptre, enthroned on Mary’s lap. The message was clear, if Jesus is like your earthly king then your ruler is like Jesus – treat him accordingly. Maybe it was under such pressures that legend had transmuted Persian astrologers into royalty in the first place.
The irony lies in that, in doing so, the church had made a bulwark of human authority out of the very tale that was intended to subvert it. For each of the three gifts offered by the magi strikes a blow directly into the heart of the traditional imagery it employs. Gold for a ruler; incense for a divinity; myrrh for a death, as the hymn puts it, Jesus is greeted as “king and god and sacrifice”, but each of them is the very opposite of what it seems.
Centuries earlier prophets had cautioned the Israelites about kings, warning that they would rule over them more for their own personal benefit and aggrandisement rather than for the wellbeing of the people. By that first Epiphany in Bethlehem a thousand years had proved it all too true. As Herod accurately observed, Jesus was there to undermine and supplant his authority. But not simply to supplant in name, replacing one tyrant with another as the devil would tempt him thirty years later. Jesus offers a new way of being king that has its roots in service, in love, in self-emptying and will blossom in healing and in teaching. Meanwhile each earthly empire, from ancient Rome via Victorian Britain and the Soviet Union to 21st century USA, remains satanic; serving the powerful and their interests before anyone else.
Likewise, Jesus seeks to deconstruct our familiar notions of divinity. He brings no set of dogmas for unthinking assent; no comprehensive list of unchallengeable moral precepts. He comes instead with a fund of simple stories and a natural critique of all that passes for human behaviour. He lays down not “what” to believe and to do but “how” to live and “why” it matters. Arguable as to whether it’s enough on which to pin a couple of creeds and a handful or so of sacraments, it’s the very opposite of the efforts his followers continue to make to separate, exclude and anathematise each other.
Finally he turns the whole concept of sacrifice on its head. Instead of the one to whom sacrifice is to be made, God becomes himself the victim. It’s a notion so challenging to conventional wisdom that, from catholic Eucharistic theology to the concept of substitutionary atonement beloved of the more firm Protestants, many Christians have sought to restore the natural order rather than root themselves in the one who gives himself not simply for us but to us.
So, as metaphorically we travel with the magi today on the final leg of their journey to Bethlehem, remember this: Epiphany is startling. It overturns what society, secular and religious, is comfortable with. It’s as shocking as the notion that God should be revealed as a Jewish baby to the gentile followers of religious practices condemned by the Old Testament.