For Christians over the world, January 6 is the feast of the Epiphany, the day upon which—according to the Gospel of Matthew—three wise men from the east visited Bethlehem and offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus and his family. The word epiphany itself doesn’t have anything to do with gift-giving. It derives from a Greek word that means manifestation or appearance. And the word used to describe the wise men, magoi, doesn’t refer to wisdom either, but to priesthood in an ancient Persian religion. Magi were priests of Zoroastrianism, clerics who studied the stars as part of their devotional practice, which makes their pursuit of a strange star over Bethlehem narratively sensible, and their reverent interest in a Jewish child surprising.
To first century Judeans, then, magi were priests of an unfamiliar religion, traveling from what is now Iran, and paying unexpected respect to an unremarkable young family in rural Judea. To be clear, there’s no sense from the bible story that the magi suddenly abandon their Zoroastrianism as a result of this visit. On the contrary, we’re told the magi return to their own land and, presumably, to their roles as astronomers and priests.
The other significant character in Matthew’s tale is King Herod, the local Judean ruler, a puppet of the Romans. Herod’s reaction to the magi’s visit is extreme, probably unhistorical, and nonetheless consistent with what we know of Herod as a cruel despot: Herod sends soldiers to Bethlehem to murder every male child under the age of two. He’s incensed that foreign visitors would offer reverence to anybody but himself. Traditionally this slaughter is known as the massacre of the Holy Innocents, still a holy day in many Christian calendars.
In Matthew’s story, it seems obvious that Herod is the bad guy and the magi are good. But put yourself in first century shoes: imagine hearing news about foreign priests who arrive secretly from foreign lands, bringing their false religion and their strange customs, looking for a new king. True, Herod may be in bed with the Romans; true, he may profit off corruption and the hardships of the poor. But at least Herod is one of us. He’s of our nation, our religion. And if he’s willing to do anything, even sacrifice a child or two, to maintain law and order in this kingdom, well: long live the king.
Borders and states operate differently now than they did in ancient Judea. So do ethnic and religious identity. I don’t mean to suggest that the biblical lessons here are uncomplicated or easily translatable across time and place. But what’s indisputable is that, in the ancient story, the holy is made manifest in openness to others. Hospitality is how epiphany happens. Hostility to ethnic and religious outsiders, meanwhile, leads to the massacre of one’s innocent own.
Christians have always spoken loudly in American politics, but recently some of the loudest have been brandishing bigger sticks. Some American governors have begun shuttling migrants who have arrived at their borders to the jurisdictions of rival politicians. The point of this, we’re told, isn’t cruelty but to highlight the complexity of our crisis. Unfortunately, in treating real lives and families as mere props, they reduce rather than reveal the terrible complexity of human suffering. If the Feast of the Epiphany manifests anything in contemporary American life, it’s that the ethno-religious nationalism so many Christians trumpet does in fact follow the scriptural account, but not in the way these Christians think. They are more like King Herod than the Three Kings.