In 2004, one of our daughters joined the Peace Corps for a two-year assignment in the Republic of Georgia. When she came home on furlough for Christmas, she chuckled at the prospect of experiencing two gift-giving celebrations that year on two continents, Christmas in the States and the Epiphany in the Republic of Georgia. Though a Soviet State for almost a century, this newly independent country has a rich Christian heritage. One of their traditions is to exchange gifts, not on Christmas Day, but on the Epiphany to commemorate the gifts of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus. Our daughter, joyfully explained to us, that she would be returning to the Republic of Georgia just in time to celebrate the Epiphany (and Christmas) all over again.
As we approach this first Sunday of 2019, I could not help but once again recall my daughter’s cherished memories of her time spent in a faraway land in a culture unlike her own. Ironically, reflecting back to the Christmases of my youth also seemed like time travel to an alien planet with customs far different than the present.
It was December 1959 in Decatur, Georgia and Mrs. Wolfe’s third-grade class at Toney Elementary had the responsibility of providing the cast for the annual school Christmas play. And yes, in 1959 public schools in America could have a Christmas pageant. This one included Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus and three Wise Men. Yours truly was chosen to play one of the Magi.
I recall being the one who carried the gold. I also remember not having a clue what the other two wise men were carrying, frankincense and myrrh? I could barely spell it. I certainly didn’t realize this visit of the Magi was what the Church called the Epiphany. Nevertheless, as my classmates sang “We Three Kings” I walked across the stage that evening with great pride and knelt before the baby Jesus and offered my gift of “gold.”
Now some 60 years later I look forward to celebrating the visit of the Magi differently than I did as a third grader. This weekend, the Christian community will celebrate the Epiphany. But let’s be honest. Our culture increasingly moves away from celebrating the birth of Christ. Most folks do not know the meaning of Advent. We are “encouraged” to say “Happy Holidays,” in lieu of “Merry Christmas.” As soon as Christmas Day is over, our trees come down, and the decorations are quickly packed away until next year. The radio stations stop playing Christmas songs the morning of the 26th and Advertisers have already started to focus their sales on the next holiday….and the Epiphany isn’t it. Santa gives way to Cupid as Valentines Day items have already been spotted at local stores.
The one thing I have always admired about our Christian liturgical tradition is its refusal to bow to cultural pressures and surrender the celebration of holy days in favor of secular holidays. So here we are, days away from the Epiphany, considered to be the first appearance of Christ to the Gentiles. If Christmas announced the birth of the Christ child, the Epiphany announced the gift of a Savior.
May our focus now shift from the birth of Christ to behold Jesus as the Light to the nations as foretold in Isaiah 49:6. Yep, those three Wise Men were really wise! In 1959 I simply walked across a stage to present my glimmering gift. However, this weekend, as always, I must once again, like the Wise Men of old, follow the Light on whatever path it may take and bow down and worship the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
No matter the country you may live in, “Come, let us adore Him.”