Epiphany Sunday – January 3, 2016 – Christmas Does Not Belong to Christians
Can you believe that there were no Christians present during the birth of Jesus? Joseph, Mary and the shepherds were all Jews. And who were the three kings? Those visitors from the East were not Jewish but belonged to the Persian priestly line of Zoroastrianism. They were philosophers who studied the stars. Their religious practice was akin to astrology and wizardry. The words “magi” and “magic” have something in common here.
But, why should any of this matter to us today? How can we unwrap this scene from the Christmas story? Our religion links the past with the present as it looks to the future. We remember our traditions, we give new shape to them, we look forward to better days. This secular time of year is a good example. The month of January gets its name from the Roman god Janus, the animistic spirit of doorways or thresholds. Scholars consider Janus the god of new beginnings.
The image of Janus has two faces. One gazes forward while the other looks to the rear. You and I look back on all of the good and bad stories of 2015. We look ahead and make resolutions so 2016 might be more peaceful and productive. What better way is there for us to start a new year than by opening doors of possibilities, or in the words of Pope Francis, doors of mercy?
Our biblical stories help us link the past, the present and future. Scholar Raymond Brown  reminds us Matthew’s story of the magi may be traced to the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew bible. In that story Balak, the bad king of Moab, wanted to destroy Moses just like, perhaps, Herod wanted to murder the boy Jesus. Balak summoned Balaam, an occult visionary from the East, to curse Moses and the Israelites. However, Balaam had a “favorable vision of the future” and blessed the kingdom of Judah instead of destroying it.
Joseph Ratzinger  in his study of the infancy narratives points out that Balaam, a non-Jew, prophesied that a star shall rise up from the tribe of Jacob. Astronomically speaking this was not to be a celestial star. Theologically speaking, Jesus of Nazareth would be the radiant star who would dispel the evil shadows of the world. The reading from Isaiah today announces that all nations shall walk by this bright light.
Although the story of the magi may not be factual [see Micah 5:2] it could help us imagine a couple of things. The bright star in the heavens, which allegedly guided the astronomers to the newborn babe in Bethlehem, may also point metaphorically to the Christ who existed before creation but was not yet revealed to humanity. Author Marilynne Robinson called the birth of Jesus Christ an “outcropping of a reality that existed throughout creation and for all time.” 
The tale of the wise priests from the Far East could also suggest to us, in the words of Matthew Taylor, that “Christmas does not belong to Christians alone.” In the second reading we heard how Paul had a revelation, an idea, that the mission and message of Jesus of Nazareth was not intended for his followers only. Paul announced it was a way of life available to all nations, all people. This does not mean that everyone should convert to Christianity. It does mean that Christians can evangelize others by their good example, their acts of mercy.
The nativity story then alerts us to the role our faith plays on the world stage. We believe that by trusting in a God who rescues the poor and the afflicted, who nurtures humanity with justice and peace (Ps. 72) can illuminate all peoples and give us hope. Our collaboration with diverse faith traditions, and not just Christian ones, is essential if the star of the universe is to shine at all.
This revelation of God is entrusted to each and every one of us. We can add our own stories, our own epiphanies to the story. Our individual and collective discoveries of God and our responses to God’s radiance are as important as any biblical story we tell.
So, there were no Christians present when Jesus was born. Since that time, however, Christianity has grown. It is the largest religion on the planet although studies show that by 2050 Islam will have almost as many members. Can a deeper respect emerge among the religions born of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar? Could the visit of the magi be a prophetic one that invites all of humanity to share gifts with one another out of love rather than to fight to the death because of greed and power?
The birth of Jesus of Nazareth continues to have an impact on all of us. This annual feast beckons you and me to treasure the past, to walk humbly today and to step forward into a year of grace, a time of mercy, when, hopefully, at last, the lions and the lambs will sleep together.
- Brown, Raymond. An Adult Christ at Christmas. Collegeville: the Liturgical Press, 1987, 11
- Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. New York: Image Books, 2012, 91-92
- Robinson, Marilynne. The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015 in Steinfels, Margaret O’Brien, “Eternally Begotten” Commonweal, 12/22/15