Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 5Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Christmas—with all of its bright lights and angel choirs, adoring shepherds and triumphant proclamations—has long been one of the great festivals of the church year. The words of the famous German hymn encapsulate the glory, “Shepherds quake at the sight; Glories stream from heaven afar, Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!” Even Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). At least in Luke’s account of the nativity.
Matthew narrates the story quite differently. The only angel appearance is to Joseph. In the dead of the night. In a dream. And this, only in response to Joseph’s plan “to dismiss [Mary] quietly” because she had been found to be with child even though Joseph knew that, biologically, the child could not be his (Matthew 1:19-20).
Absent the fanfare, Matthew narrates the birth of Jesus quietly. It is the coming of the Son of God into a world in which a young woman could be exposed “to public disgrace”—indeed, could even be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:20) on account of a new life growing within her womb. It is the coming of the Prince of Peace into a world so consumed with “Order,” with what is “Right,” that the interests of a young woman and her growing child took second place. Matthew narrates the birth of Jesus so quietly, in fact, that we are not even told that Mary herself knew what was going on or why.
Into this unjust, oppressive world, Jesus comes. The first active verb that is applied to Mary in Matthew’s account is simple and matter-of-fact: “she had borne a son.” And Joseph named him Jesus (Matthew 1:25). And so God, Immanuel, came into a world of patriarchy. A world in which the lives of women and children were expendable to male order and rule. A world in which not only does Mary not ponder, Mary does not even know that she is carrying the Son of God within herself.
But it isn’t Mary only who is subject to the power of rulers and principalities beyond herself. For no sooner does Joseph act by giving the child the name designated for him by the angel, than Matthew interrupts and reminds us that all of this took place, not in the time of the reign of the King Jesus, but “in the time of King Herod” (Matthew 2:1). Herod the Great was a Jewish puppet king who maintained his own and his family’s relative comfort by capitulating to the Roman oppressors and sacrificing the rest of his people to their whims.
“In the time of King Herod”: only six little words (five in Greek) and yet they say so much. Jesus was not born into a time of comfort or peace. Jesus was not born into a family of standing or wealth. Jesus was born into a world that pretended “peace” on the backs of the lives of ordinary people like Mary and Joseph. To prosperity that depended upon the kind of “Order” and “Righteousness” that would have stoned Mary and, very possibly, Joseph for being unwilling to complete the task himself. In the time of King Herod, to a silent mother and a scared father, Jesus came. God Immanuel, God-With-Us.
But this purported peace of the Roman Empire was not the first darkness the Jewish people had faced. Out of slavery, into exile, and back again, God’s people have felt the harsh calculations of a self-interested world since practically the beginnings of time. Third Isaiah speaks into this hurt. After the exiled Israelites have returned from Babylon they had hoped for the kind of prosperity and peace that, centuries later, the Roman Empire touted. But, instead, they returned to a city in ruins, a city with too little food and too much hurt. To division between families, between those who had been exiled and those who had been left behind.
Isaiah 59:14-15 begins to describe the situation,
Justice is turned back,
and righteousness stands at a distance;
for truth stumbles in the public square,
and uprightness cannot enter.
Truth is lacking,
and whoever turns from evil is despoiled.
But it is into this dark world of hurt and hate, of injustice and distrust, that God comes. For the prophet continues, “Arise, shine; for your light has come; and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1). The glory of the Lord, the very presence of God—Immanuel, God-With-Us—comes into the world’s darkness. Into a time of injustice and oppression. In the time of King Herod … Jesus was born.
The wise men, the crowns, the prostrated adoration, the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, have all elided into the Christmas narrative of the Church. The deadening silence of Matthew’s account has been eclipsed over time by Luke’s adoring angels and the visitors from the East have been added as one more gold star for God’s triumphant entry into our world. But this isn’t what landed Epiphany alongside Christmas as one of the great festivals of the church.
Epiphany—literally, a revelation—is a story of God’s coming to be with us. It is a story of the Glory of God, Immanuel, in the time of King Herod. In the darkness of oppression, injustice, and pain. It is a story of a star that shines, not apart from all the others, but above them nonetheless, in the same dimly lit sky. Epiphany is a story of a baby who, in the time of King Herod, despite all the principalities and powers that continue to overpower and oppress in our world, offers a different hope.
It is a story amidst all the kings and rulers, the armies and the politicians, the laws and the bargaining, of God-With-Us. Leaving the child, the wise men, thus affected by the power of the glory of God in their midst, ignore the oppressive power that Herod attempts to claim, and go home “by another road” (Matthew 2:12). The question for us thus remains, which road will we follow? To whom will we bow?
The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.